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Photographer finds passion in homeless portraits, inspires others in ABR series

By KBell
Oct. 13, 2011 at 5:13 a.m.

Michael O'Brien stands in front of two juxtaposed photographs he snapped. On the left is a couple when they were homeless, and on the right is the couple after they'd found jobs and a home, with their baby. O'Brien was the first photographer to speak at the American Book Review reading series.

The face that had haunted Michael O'Brien was blown up behind him, its wiry whiskers penetrating the projector screen.

The man with the deep-wrinkled skin that had seen too much sun was John Madden, a homeless man living - and dying - in Miami in 1975.

"In ways he was kind of really invisible," O'Brien said of Madden.

But more than 30 years later, O'Brien was sharing Madden's story with a packed Alcorn Auditorium at the University of Houston-Victoria on Thursday.

In the six years and 44 speakers of the American Book Review, O'Brien was the first photographer invited to share his work.

Perhaps most telling of his photographs' power were the audible reactions from the audience during the 45-minute presentation.

A collective "awww" sounded at the sight of a bride dancing at her wedding. A quiet gasp released at the portrait of a baby-faced butcher covered in blood. A burst of laughter escaped at the photo of two men with waist-length beards standing in patches of hair. They were beside another man in a barber's chair, newly beardless.

O'Brien flipped through other portraits he had taken over the years: Destiny's Child, Willie Nelson and a 27-year-old Steven Spielberg, who O'Brien had convinced to get in the water for a photo shoot about "Jaws."

Before a portrait of Bill Cosby, O'Brien displayed a photo of an elderly Texas school teacher standing frail in a field.

The photographer rattled off each of his subjects' full names, the famous and non-famous alike.

"Everybody - we're all here on earth at the same time," O'Brien said.

His life has been made rich, not by mastering the camera or his success, but by the people he's met, O'Brien said.

One of the most potent of his subjects was Madden, whose flag-draped casket O'Brien photographed in front of metal folding chairs, empty.

O'Brien developed a friendship with Madden, who he photographed passed out among pints of hard liquor, in jail or at the soup kitchen.

But the most telling picture in Madden's story was one O'Brien didn't even take. It's a photo of an 11-year-old Madden, without any inkling of future wrinkles or any idea he would go on to be a soldier, marry and have three daughters.

"In the 11-year-old picture, you see the sparkle in his eyes, and you think this boy could grow up to be anything," O'Brien said. "It makes you reframe the last year of his life."

Eventually, O'Brien would move to Austin and photograph homeless men and women to fundraise for the Mobile Loaves and Fishes homeless outreach.

The subjects make up his new book, "Hard Ground," and are accompanied by poems from singer-songwriter Tom Waits.

"They were so unrecognized. Even getting a picture where they looked haggard, they were graceful about it," O'Brien said. "The irony of it was that people that have so little can be the most generous sometimes."

Ingrid Junor, a UHV student studying for a masters in publishing, said she wanted to thank O'Brien for his commitment to bringing attention to the people so easily overlooked.

"The most touching are those who are deemed invisible and voiceless, not the rich and famous. I see and hear about them every day," she said.

Junor couldn't have chosen a more appropriate ABR series to attend. With a background in urban planning and community development, Junor said her passion is to use her writing as a voice for those who have been silenced, as O'Brien used his photography.

The images that stuck out to her most, Junor said, were the final two contrasted on the giant screen.

On the left was a homeless couple in black and white, their faces long and arms wrapped around each other. On the right, the couple was bright, fresh-faced. With the help of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, they'd found jobs, a home, and this time, their arms grasped a chunky baby.

"It just showed that one good deed can multiply, and it touched a new generation. That's part of my plight in life," Junor said.



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