Photographs by Michael O’Brien
Poems by Tom Waits
In 2006, Michael O’Brien, a veteran photojournalist who’s shot for Life, National Geographic, Texas Monthly and many other publications, took on a different kind of assignment.
An Austin-based ministry called Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which aids the homeless, was looking for a photographer to document the people it served. O’Brien was looking for something to do. The changing media landscape had made life as a freelance photographer increasingly difficult. As O’Brien writes in the introduction to the new book Hard Ground (University of Texas Press, $40, 184 pages), “Newspapers were dying, magazines struggling in earnest. There were fewer assignments. My career was changing. I was looking for a way to stay busy.”
He began going to the Mission: Possible! Community Center in East Austin every Tuesday to photograph the homeless people who came in for a free meal and a place to sleep. What started as an effort to stay busy quickly grew into much more. O’Brien spent the next three years photographing and documenting the stories of homeless people in Austin.
In Hard Ground, O’Brien’s haunting photographs of the homeless are paired with poetry by musician Tom Waits. To make his photographs, O’Brien used an old view camera. “This is a large, bulky camera that sits atop a tripod … a view camera is slow and deliberate,” he writes in the book’s introduction. With a view camera, the subject must remain completely still or the photo will be out of focus. O’Brien also employed a black-and-white Polaroid film called Type 55, which produces a negative and print at the same time. When O’Brien took his photos, he kept the negative and handed the print to his subject.
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