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Words Joe Magowan

Photography Kelly O'Brien

Are You There

Kelly O’Brien uses the insights of clairvoyants and psychic mediums to build an abstract picture of the father she never got to meet. She only had one startling interaction with him, aged 7, when he put his hand through the letterbox of her home. Twelve years later, during a trip to the supermarket her grandmother casually told her that he had died. Are You There goes far outside the usual realms of family portraiture, and reminds us that sometimes the distinction between fact and fiction doesn’t always matter.

Joe Spoke with Kelly about her experience of working with family narrative and the difficulties of representing family tensions, her approach to translating psychic experiences, and future plans for installation of the work.

Hi Kelly. What drew you to working with clairvoyants and mediums for this project, rather than taking a perhaps more well-trodden path of going through old family photographs, searching for people that may have known your father, or researching your family tree?

The main thing that lead me to working with clairvoyants was probably one of the very few things that my mother shared with me about my father – that that he had a brother (an uncle I had never met) who was something of a famous clairvoyant.  After hearing this I started to attend my psychic uncle’s night of clairvoyance and tarot reading undercover. I became obsessed with observing him as he performed to a sold-out room. I remember being in total awe of his charismatic showmanship and his ability to both connect and reach out to people in the audience who, like me, were in search of meaningful information that they couldn’t find by any “normal” means. I watched as my uncle acted as a messenger, the bridge between this world and the spirit realm. I believe it was when I was undercover at these events that I decided I would work with clairvoyants to create a connection and conversation with my deceased father. This method of working made total sense to me as a way of gathering information about him, as unfortunately, my immediate family cannot talk about him. Maybe they refuse to as a way of avoiding retracing a painful past – a coping mechanism, or perhaps to keep me safe from a harmful truth. Using clairvoyance and collecting messages, stories and anecdotes about my father permits me to develop visions and insights into what he might have been like.  I am often asked why I don’t contact his side of the family or research my family tree as a means to find information. There are 2 reasons behind this – Firstly I think it is important to mirror the tensions I have experienced within my immediate family when trying to learn about my father. This then allows me to bring in universal themes such as family secrets and hidden stories. These themes have been such a huge influence and challenge within my process, both personally and artistically, so I feel it is crucial for me to explore this and keep it present in the work itself. Secondly, I have chosen to hold back and wait to reveal my identity to my clairvoyant uncle. This is because I want to invite him to collaborate with me eventually. I’m developing this project in chapters and I’m waiting to complete this first chapter of “the searching” before I reach out to him to reveal who I am. At this point in the work, it makes sense for me to explore what is real and what is fabricated, and what I can construct out of these polarised notions and how I can embed these different types of information into a narrative around my father. I would say this method of working also allows me to feel in control of my personal history, yet also makes room for me to be vulnerable through the process of finding out what kind of man my father used to be.

This subject matter is often conveyed in quite a sentimental, nostalgic way, so your eerie, offbeat style of imagery really struck me. What led you to creating images like this? And can you tell me a bit more about your process and approach?

I wouldn’t say that I feel a sentimentality towards my father as of yet. I think this is because there is an absence of information and visual material surrounding my father. There is one memory though, the image of his hand coming through the letterbox, which was the only real interaction I had with him when I was a child. That experience has stuck with me and brings up strange feelings. The lack of information, plus the very surreal and unnerving memory of the one-off letterbox incident has potentially fuelled the eerie images that I create. I would say that there are some unconscious aspects manifesting in the work that comes from a fear that I used to have of my father as a child. To me, he existed as an estranged man and an unknown figure that could potentially turn up and disturb my childhood environment. Because of this, there is an unfamiliarity and strangeness that I feel towards my father in both his absence and presence. What is interesting is that the clairvoyants often express more of a sentimentality towards him, often generalising what a potential father and daughter relationship should be. There are some clairvoyants who pick up on strange details which then have turned out to be true further down the line in my investigation, such as dates of his death and the reason he died. This keeps me curious and fuels me to continue making this work. My approach towards making work is fractured but responsive to the environments I’m navigating. I produce images using a range of cameras and different formats. It’s important for me to shoot as freely as possible and to use whatever kit suits the environment. Whether I’m photographing and participating in a séance or constructing images from the shared insights of the clairvoyants, I treat the individuals and the various cameras as the tools that allow me to communicate this story. Each camera and clairvoyant acts differently and offers me novel methods and new narratives to play with, describing a different perspective, scene, or story. The task is then to connect these pieces of information, and to decide what is seen and what is kept hidden. As the work is surrounded by uncertainty, I choose to blur the margins of what the viewer may perceive, and what images belong to “now and then”, developing a confusion to what space or time they are experiencing at any given point. Throughout the process of developing this work, I try to question the external, the absent and the immaterial. This allows me to have an encounter with the anomalous entity that is my father. Someone who is from my deep past. The placement of particular images next to one another provokes certain narratives that allow the images to speak. My aim for this work is for it to sit suspended between the uncanny and the fantastical, whilst allowing the images to contradict, disrupt or express the reality of this fractured story, whilst bringing about certain endings or results.

From Are You There ©Kelly O'Brien
From Are You There ©Kelly O'Brien

It’s interesting listening to the audio from one of the seances and then looking at the resulting imagery. How do you translate the insights of the clairvoyants into a constructed image?

That particular piece of audio work was recorded during the very first meeting that I had with a clairvoyant at the beginning of this project. There was something significant about this being my first interaction with a psychic and having this first reading. Therefore, I chose not to translate the insights of this particular clairvoyant into images. Instead, I decided to treat this recording as a document of the process that I was participating in. However, with most of the other interactions I have with clairvoyants, I use a working methodology that involves recording the seances or readings (if the clairvoyants have consented), listening back to the recordings and transcribing them into a document. I then return to the transcript to see what aspects of the reading stand out to me, observing what resonates or what instinctively might work as an image. Some of the images I have made from this process are seen within the work currently, whilst others have been held back to come into the project at a later date. The work seems to be coming out in sections at the moment, non-linear chapters which I imagine will resolve themselves at some point. This reflects the nature and the process of how the information I receive to create the work arrives to me – in a fractured and non-linear rhythm.

From Are You There ©Kelly O'Brien
From Are You There ©Kelly O'Brien

How has the memory of your father and your idea of what he may have been like changed since you began the project? What information have you managed to find out about him that you didn’t know before, and how do you discern between what’s real and what’s fabricated?

The concepts and ideas of what my father might have been like are constantly changing throughout this project. In the beginning, there was apprehension and tension within me when finding out what type of man he was. There have been moments of discomfort and confusion around his narrative, where family members and clairvoyants provided me with snippets of information, which led to humorous and unnerving insights around his identity. There are also moments of strange synchronicity that have left me feeling very intrigued. An example was the process of discovering the year my father had died. This information was given to me at a séance and at the time, the information just felt irreverent. The clairvoyant told me that the death of my father occurred in June 1999, which felt arbitrary and random. Then later that night, as I was walking home from the séance, I came across a small pocket diary on a wall near to the house where I lived. Funnily enough, it was diary from the year 1999, with no writing in at all, just a plain old diary someone had left there for some unknown reason. The diary was in pristine condition even though it was over 18 years old. I immediately picked it up and took it home. A few weeks later I went to a local library to view some death records. I was searching for a factual document and the registration of my father’s death. It turned out to be the same month and year that was I told during that séance some weeks before. That was quite a poignant string of events for me in this work. Of course, there can be many interpretations of the events and why or how they unfolded. It could also be understood through a conclusion of coincidence. However, I would say that coincidence has a kind of magic about it in its own right, and the unravelling of these events resulted in a questioning or curiosity around something potentially mystical, which ultimately mirrors the nature of this work. This then feeds into the larger question that I am investigating – When does the real become fabricated? When does fact become fiction and vice-versa? And at what point do we start believing in something that’s untrue? Saying all this though, what I have found through producing this work and navigating my historical landscape is that I am one of the actors/performers within this work who is exploring the merge between the real and fabricated. I am attempting to compose a narrative and understanding connected to an absence in my personal life, whilst simultaneously using my personal history as a departure point to delve into bigger themes that explore perspective, memory, fact and fiction. What I am learning, is to be less reliant on the facts and the truth, as I am finding that they are never what they claim to be anyhow. The truth is almost limiting to me now. I’m finding that there’s something great to be discovered in fiction – I feel that utilising it permits me to uncover many possibilities which can inform and clarify my underlying questions, resulting in new truths and meaning. Opening up possibility and potential like this helps me to develop and conceptualise new realities – offering me a methodology to represent something that would be near impossible to do otherwise.

You mention deciding between what is seen and what is kept hidden. Is this a case of simply picking out the real aspects from the fabricated ones? Or are you intentionally blurring these lines within the project?

Some of the photographs and materials that I develop are relevant now within the narrative of this work and some are put on hold and will be used and reformed at a later date. I am trying to work in a very instinctive way, attempting to foresee what images can be introduced at various points in the timeline of this project to inform and instigate new conversations. For example, I stumbled across an actual photograph of my father through a social media account of a distant relative. Unexpectedly there he was, smiling back to me, with hair just like mine, through a backlit screen on my computer. I wasn’t ready to see this photograph, nor did I know what to do with it now I had seen it. I screen grabbed it and stuck it in a folder – not wanting to see it anymore. I guess there was a fear that seeing an actual photograph of my father would affect the process of this work. His presence through this photograph could potentially fill the absence I had been trying to fill. However, once my initial emotions calmed and I could see it objectively, all it was, was a blurry, low-res, low-quality image that didn’t give me any information about him at all. I chose to hold the image back for some time until I felt that I was ready to explore ways of working with it. Currently, I am situated in an artist residency for this project and only now has it become apparent that I need to start working with it. So, holding the image back, and choosing not to show it immediately gives me room to discover ways of reframing it and finding novel ways to integrate it into the wider body of work. I think that the nature of this work organically blurs what is real and what is fabricated. Both truth and falsity are simultaneously positioned within the information that both my family members, and the clairvoyants decide to give to me, and the images within this work aim to mirror this. Throughout making this work I have never actually sought out the facts as a means to gain closure on this investigation around my estranged father, but more to explore the process, and observe what questions might derive from it.

I’ve chosen to use a mixture of image types within this work – images that pick up on the tropes of photography, such a documentary and the family album. These types of images can often be perceived as truthful documents of events in time. They have visual connotations that suggest they offer us factual representations – they imply that they are showing something truthful. But of course, this implication is fickle and unstable. Truth and photography remain contested. So, I guess I can say that I am deliberately blurring the lines between fact and fiction, through adopting the signs and methods within photography that create a representation and perception of what might appear real.

From Are You There ©Kelly O'Brien

Why is it important that you become less reliant on the facts and truth?

I’ve become less reliant on the facts and the truth because what I have learned whilst developing this project is that each participant who is involved in providing me information on my father (family members and clairvoyants) hold a subjective perspective on him, whether in their memories or their psychic insights. In one way, this work has become a collaboration, where each participant is the artist codeveloping this story. The information that each participant contributes to this work creates multiple routes for composing a reality (or multiple realities) which often best suit the side of the person who’s telling the story. I am then left with a number of proposed truths that exist next to one another simultaneously. Truths that are rarely objective and often act as self-serving to the author’s point of view. It is more useful for me to let go of the idea that I am going to learn about who my father was through “factual” information. What I’ve learned is that not everything can be fully understood through the factual, and that taking a quasi-ethnographic approach to develop this work can lead to richer outcomes. Delving into the magic of the subjective narrative can result in vibrant findings and storytelling. This is where intriguing anecdotes about my father’s life can be found; through subjective, embellished, or imagined perspectives.

One of the ‘images’ that really stands out (for quite obvious reasons perhaps) is the flashing gif of the hands holding the cardboard cone. Can you tell me a bit more about this image and why you chose to make it pulsate like this?

What is depicted in this image is a spirit trumpet. These objects were often used in the early days of spiritualist practices by clairvoyants to amplify the voice of the spirits who were present during a séance. This particular spirit trumpet is modern and is owned by a group of psychics who invited me to take part in a seance to try and communicate with my father. Photography and spiritualism have a connected history, where new emerging photographic technologies of the 19th century were developed alongside the growing intrigues and beliefs in spiritualism, a movement that believed that people could communicate with the dead. The early use of photography was utilised to creatively document the practices and rituals that the spiritualist movement performed. In some ways, photography was employed to prove and rationalise that spiritualism was real, using

photographs to reinforce their beliefs to the wider public. I wanted to appropriate the types of images that are being used in today’s culture, not just by photographers but by the general public, to reflect the fact that clairvoyants are now using new ways, such as social media, to communicate their practices through the digital realm. I was keen to use a type of image that could reference how psychics are adapting to digital and online spaces to continue their work and reach a wider audience. The gif was the perfect form to achieve this, plus the pulsing of the image gives it a sense of movement and power, which again references how the item is used within the seances. Ultimately what I am trying to achieve here are new forms within the work, rather than reproducing images that have already been created and released into the world. I attempt to repurpose the medium and theme I am working with, in this case photography and spiritualism, gathering materials and then mixing them to create a new function.

From Are You There ©Kelly O'Brien
From Are You There ©Kelly O'Brien

The project uses many different types of media. Do you have any ideas on how you’ll present it once it has reached completion?

As it stands, I am still developing the project. I’m currently in an artist residency where I am in the process of planning to exhibit an installation of an iteration of the work. The project will also be shown at the Bristol Photography Festival in 2021. I’m very excited about this opportunity to create an installation where the project can be experienced in a multi-sensory way, applying and harmonising the different types of media within this work. Once the project is finished, I would like to put the work into book form, to be experienced as a visual story. I have plans to start designing and looking for a publisher to develop the book next spring.

Joe Magowan

Joe is a London based photographer from Northern Ireland. He spends most of his free time wandering the streets and going to raves by himself.

Kelly O'Brien

Kelly O’Brien is an artist and educator currently based in the UK. Kellys practice is characterised by a focus on historical and personal narratives, intersecting with wider themes such as gender, social class, identity and intergenerational and hidden narratives, along with exploring the tensions between fact and fiction. She is also the founder of The Other Collective, a project which aims to champion working class voices within the photography industry.

Her project “Are You There” will be exhibited this year at Format Photo Festival and Bristol photography Festival.


In this issue we feature photography and writing that explores belief through worship, mourning, loss of faith, superstitions and the possibility of other worlds.

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