Colin O’Brien is a street photographer in the truest sense of the word. Born in Clerkenwell in 1940, he took his very first photograph at the age of eight and continued to snap pictures of London as he grew up; images which now exist as beautifully preserved snapshots of a city which has long transformed into something very different.
His extraordinary series Traveller’s Children in London Fields captures the nomadic youth of travellers living in East London in 1987, and has just been published by Spitalfields Life Books in a poignant and concise new publication.
Filled as we were with both admiration for his beautiful work and curiosity about how it came about, Colin kindly agreed to talk to us about what East London was like in the 1980s and how he came to capture the character-filled faces of the children in the photographs.
How and when did you first start taking photographs?
I took what I call my first picture in 1948. It’s of two of my friends leaning against a car in Hatton Garden. I was born in Clerkenwell in 1940 and grew up in the area known as ‘Little Italy’. The picture of the boys was taken with a Kodak Box Brownie and was used recently on the cover of a book called The History Reader by Hilda Keane.
How did you come across the children you photographed for the series?
I often roamed around with my camera trying to record the passing scene, with no obvious plan in mind. I came across the travellers parked up around London Fields station and took some Polaroid pictures of the children, which I gave to them as presents. They in turn showed their parents, who dressed the children up and sent them out to my open air studio to have their pictures taken. I went back to London Fields for the next three weeks taking more pictures, but by the fourth week they had moved on. I recently got in touch with some of the now grown up children, and some of them still have the original Polaroids I had given them all those years ago.
The children had led a rough hard life and they were older than their years, and I think this shows in the pictures. They weren’t twee or out to please me, they were just themselves. The most outstanding picture for me is the girl in the woollen dress, which has a somewhat haunting quality to it. The children’s parents didn’t really get involved – there are one or two images of adults, but the essay is really all about the children.
What camera did you use to shoot the majority of the photographs?
I mostly used a Nikon FM camera and an SX 70 Polaroid. I processed all the black and white film myself, and printed the best images on to silver gelatin photographic paper. I have shown the pictures in many exhibitions over the years. There will be a big exhibition of the photographs next June in the Hackney Museum.
What was London Fields like in the 1980s?
I took the pictures in 1987. The whole area was very run down in those days, with racist and IRA graffiti everywhere. A long terrace of beautiful Victorian houses was being demolished and the railway arches were used by small manufacturing companies. Not the trendy coffee houses and antique establishments that exist today!
How do you feel looking back through these images?
I feel glad that I took the time to take the photographs. It was only in the darkroom when I started printing the pictures that I realised what a strong set of images I had taken. I’m so pleased that we published the book, as this gives a lot more people a chance to look at the images. It doesn’t seem like it was 26 years ago that I took them! I still remember meeting the children so clearly.