Photographs by Michael O’Brien
Poems by Tom Waits
Michael O’Brien took pictures on Tuesdays at a Catholic ministry that feeds and houses the homeless. He spent two years doing it in Austin, Texas, starting in 2006. Eighty-eight of his photographs alternate with brief sections of poetry by singer-songwriter Tom Waits in O’Brien’s book Hard Ground, published March 1st by the University of Texas Press.
Other collections of lost souls (Richard Avedon’s In the American West comes to mind) are different. We meet O’Brien’s people one on one. Their “otherness” is removed. The photographs engender compassion and empathy. If that sounds simple, it is because it is simple. And, as anyone knows, being simple is very, very difficult. Hard Ground is a rare and powerful book.
“After thirty-five years working as a photographer for magazines such as Life, National Geographic, Texas Monthly and others," O’Brien points out that by 2006 “the business had changed. Newspapers were dying, magazines struggling in earnest. My career was changing; I was looking for a way to stay busy … These gentle, worn, and vulnerable souls sat quietly across from me and looked directly into the lens … I wasn’t close to living on the street. But I was uprooted by the industry’s change; I too was unsettled, floundering, often unemployed, trying to regain my balance and place. This project, and these subjects, gave me back my anchor.”
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