Barbara O’Brien is a very talented photographer, but she is an animal lover first and foremost. There is something very unique about the path she took to become a pro photographer and how she developed her skills. She started as a animal actor trainer and naturally picked up the camera years later to capture the expressions she had learned to expect from the animals she knows so well. You may not recognize her name but, if you buy pet food or vet products, you’ve probably seen her work! She splits her time between her beloved farm in Western Wisconsin and large studios in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
I am delighted to share a short interview I had with her as well as some of her amazing and inspiring work. If those images don’t make you want to head out to the nearest farm and photograph a horse or a barn cat, I don’t know what will!
What came first, your love for farm life or photography?
I have always loved animals and have always wanted to live on a farm. I eloped at 19 so I could live on a farm and have a horse. I am happy to say that I am still married to the same man and I still have horses. The photography didn’t come until my late 40’s. I was too busy running my animal actors agency and raising a family.
What was your first paid commercial job involving farm animals?
My first client was an animal supplement company. I had the pleasure of shooting some dogs and horses for them. They are still a regular client of mine.
What made you decide to specialize in such a niche market?
I have been an animal actor trainer for over 20 years so it was only natural to begin photographing the animals I worked with. Because I know what the animals are going to do next, I am able to capture just the look or expression I am looking for.
What are the main challenges when working with animals?
Domestic animals are pretty easy for me to shoot as my clients usually have me source the animals as well. The hardest part sometimes is that people think animals are little humans in fur suits and don’t understand why a dog, for instance, can’t do five different commands at once.
How do you find specific animals for a specific shoot?
Since I am also and animal actor trainer I know where they all are. I audition almost all of the animals I use for shoots to make sure they like it and will be happy on the set.
Do you have a favorite subject?
I like to photograph anything that moves. Be it cows, or chickens, horses or kids. I have found that I am not really moved to photograph things that are not living. I guess it’s a good thing I have found my specialty as I would be terribly unhappy as a product shooter.
Ok I will admit. I have a thing for cows.
Any animal you would love to photograph if given the opportunity?
That is hard one as I like to photograph all animals. I guess I would like to photograph more stories and essay about animals and people. The animal human connection as it were. That is the real story to me.
What was your most memorable moment, good or bad?
I have been lucky so far to have had only good moments. I think that, on every shoot, when the moment hits that I know I “got it”… It’s the best feeling you can have!
What would you tell a new photographer who wants to have a go at photographing animals?
The smartest thing you can do is hook up with a good animal trainer. It is very hard to wrangle and shoot animals at the same time.