Christina Mc Carthy, Hard Ground © Michael O'Brien
Connie Thompson, Hard Ground © Michael O'Brien
Floyd Stone, Hard Ground © Michael O'Brien
Hanshew & Garrett, Hard Ground © Michael O'Brien
Jerry Freeman, Hard Ground © Michael O'Brien
Karrie & Jeremiah, Hard Ground © Michael O'Brien
Leslie McAdoo, Hard Ground © Michael O'Brien
Oscar Palacios, Hard Ground © Michael O'Brien
Randy Birch, Hard Ground © Michael O'Brien
Richard Lewis, Hard Ground © Michael O'Brien
Trey Strahan, Hard Ground © Michael O'Brien
Hard Ground Cover, Hard Ground © Michael O'Brien
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.”
O’Brien used Polaroid Type 55 black and white film that produced a negative and a print in 20 seconds. “The more I photographed, the more I felt a need to connect with the human beings before my camera,” says O’Brien. One of his subjects, 29-year-old Oscar Palacios, stood stiffly at attention. O’Brien felt he looked tired and worn. He was nervous about showing him the photograph. “But when I handed it over, Palacios carefully studied the image … Finally he looked up, his eyes beaming. ‘No one has made my picture since I was a schoolboy. May I keep this? I want to send it home to my son. He is in Mexico living with his mom.’
“The face of homelessness has changed. Instead of a mostly adult male population, today there are young and old, women and children, even families.
“’Taking a photograph’ is a common expression,” O’Brien writes, “and indeed, the subject is giving something to the photographer. But there is reciprocity between photographer and subject, and in this case, each subject received something tangible—a print that bore testament to a life. It is a safe encounter and it is a relationship, however brief.”
John Loengard is a former Life magazine staff photographer and picture editor, and one of American Photo magazine’s "100 most influential people in photography.
Hard Ground, Photographs by Michael O’Brien, Poems by Tom Waits. University of Texas Press, Austin. $40.00