Emma O'Brien man's best friend

Emma O’Brien Interviewed: Making A Difference With Photography

Finding beauty and life in places where the world has lost its hope is what makes Emma O’Brien stand out of the crowd. Her journey from capturing as a hobby, to capturing wedding photographs and now being a celebrated animal & human portrait photographer is truly one to vouch for. Emma O’Brien with her great skill, humility, hard work, consistency and never die attitude has carved a niche for herself in the photography industry. We are glad to have had a chance to discuss with Emma O’Brien her journey and her experience of having a series of captures go viral.

Emma O'Brien artist

  1. Did you always aspire to be a photographer, even as a kid? What made you take it up as a profession?

I’ve always appreciated and enjoyed photography. My Dad is a keen photographer, in fact, I commandeered his Nikon D1 when I started my business back in 2004, and my Grandad was also passionate about creating images, but it wasn’t until I was 22 that I decided to pursue it as a full-time career. I was very inspired by the work of W Eugene Smith, I felt very drawn to the way he used his photographs to tell stories and make people aware of events that would otherwise have remained unknown. His work gave me an insight into the impact that photography can have and how it can be used to make a positive difference in the world. So when I decided to become a photographer my initial intention was to somehow make a living out of shooting documentary work, however, I had a small child to take care of and I needed to earn money, so I focussed on wedding photography. It took me another six years to be able to start using my work to make a difference.

Emma O'Brien poodles

2. What brought you to South Africa from the UK?

I moved to South Africa in 2009 with a man I was in a relationship with at the time. I’d not long been divorced and it was an opportunity for a new start and some far better weather!


3. Is there a specific reason why you have chosen animals (dogs) and human portraiture as a niche?

It was never my intention to become a dog photographer, it happened by accident. When I moved to SA, I decided to stop photographing weddings, I’d lost the love and passion for them, so I made the decision to concentrate on portraiture. In February 2011 I went to my local SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and adopted a Dachshund called Jeremy. Whilst I was there, I volunteered to help them with fundraising by photographing a calendar and as I was working with cats and dogs for the project, I discovered I had a talent for shooting pet portraits and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Emma O'Brien shadows

4. Name a brand you have always aspired to work with as a photographer.

I would love to shoot a campaign for Louis Vuitton, they have a very luxurious range of dog accessories!


5. Which is your greatest achievement among all your awards?

Awards are great, however, I’d say the greatest achievement for me has been the massive media coverage received as a result of The BLACK SERIES. This is a series featuring adopted black rescue dogs that I created to highlight the worldwide issue of black dog syndrome (black dogs who end up at shelters are the least likely to be adopted and the most likely to be put to sleep). I shared the portraits onto the Bored Panda website in May last year and it very quickly went viral. I had so many messages from people who, until they’d seen my work, hadn’t been aware of black dog syndrome and also from people pledging to make sure the next dog they got would be from a shelter. My goal of creating work that could make a positive impact in the world came to fruition with The BLACK SERIES.

Emma O'Brien black and white

6. What do you like to do the most? Training, writing a book or photography?

I like taking photographs the most, it will always be my first love.

7. When did you decide you needed to capture the stray?

After I adopted Jeremy from the SPCA, I became very aware of the numbers of unwanted dogs sitting in shelters and I wanted to do something to help them find homes. Great portrait photographs of shelter dogs help to speed up the adoption process, the images get shared online and the dogs find homes much quicker than they would have done with basic cellphone pictures. 

Emma O'Brien pug

8. Do you work for an NGO or organization, if not would you want to?

I still photograph the annual SPCA calendar that I started in 2011 and it’s a project that’s raised over $50,000 to date. There are also a couple of dog shelters that I regularly visit to photograph the dogs that are looking for homes. NGO work is very important to me, I like to do what I can to help.

Emma O'Brien monochrome

9. Being a photographer what will be your advice for others trying to make a name in your industry.

Keep making new work, collaborate with people (this does require being brave and reaching out to new organizations and businesses) and be persistent. Making consistently good and authentic work will always pay off, but it is a process and success doesn’t happen overnight.

Emma O'Brien BABY

Show some love to Emma O’Brien for being organic in her responses, and striving to make a difference.

You can find the work of Emma O’Brien here on her website.

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