Bringing the World to Students

Photography department Chair Tony O’Brien has traveled the world as a photographer and imparts his hard-won lessons to students

June 2015—Photojournalist and Photography Department Chair Tony O’Brien has documented the struggles of Muslim guerrillas in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets, which resulted in his incarceration as a prisoner of war. He’s captured the lives of drug addicts and prostitutes in the U.S. He also lived with Benedictine monks for a year, illuminating their daily rituals through photography.

His latest show, “Sketches of Syria” at Verve Gallery in Santa Fe, which ran through April 18, showcased images he took in Jordan in 2013, where he captured images of Syrians trying to reconstruct their lives. In “A Sacred Possession,” O’Brien captured a woman’s hands cradling a miniature Quran, the only possession she grabbed as she fled with her husband and children.

These images, often made possible through prestigious foundation and grant support, have been exhibited in galleries, and published in books as well as in publications like Life, Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times Magazine.

And for more than 30 years, the New York City-born O’Brien has made his home in Santa Fe. He graduated from the College of Santa Fe (now SFUAD) in 1969, and since 1999, has been an integral part of the photography department. His students, O’Brien says, graduate “with all the tools, techniques, technology, and knowledge they need to be successful photographers, but also with a deep understanding of who they are as individuals.”

Over the decades, O’Brien has helped transform the department. By working with former chairs, he expanded SFUAD’s nationally renowned fine-arts photography program into a department with three tracks—studio/commercial, new media/visual storytelling, and fine art/gallery practices—“to make it easier for students to cross-pollinate within the department and better explore their career options after graduation.”

Photography students today, he adds, “also need to be proficient in audio, writing, video, and collaboration. Technology is changing how we communicate and think. Photography isn’t going away, but no one knows exactly where it’s going. My students now are creating photography’s future. That’s part of the thrill of teaching.”

As a world traveler to war-torn countries, O’Brien says his experiences help students “become more professionally aware of the world we live in, and of how all of humanity is connected in some way or another.” In turn, he adds, his students “keep me grounded, continually remind me of the complexity within the art of photography and aware of our own vulnerabilities.”

O’Brien is currently archiving his work and hopes to continue photographing Syrian refugees this summer or next. But as chair, he’s focusing his energy and creativity on the photography program. “The students feed my creativity and I’m part of their creativity, which is incredible,” he says. “It’s critical to do what you believe in, what feeds your soul.” —Camille LeFevre