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Afropunk: Robert Newman on Erin Patrice O’Brien’s Personal Series

This guest post is by designer Robert Newman, a fan of the work of Brooklyn-based Erin Patrice O’Brien.

Erin Patrice O’Brien’s images are strong, colorful, and engaging. Her subjects are a rich range of celebrities (like Janelle Monae featured in the latest American Photography annual), non-celebrities, and youth culture. Though she shoots a ton of editorial work, she makes time for personal projects, like “Afropunk.” The series documents the Afropunk festival, an annual two-day gathering of music and culture in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood.

“What attracted me to the Afropunk festival,” Erin told me, “is that [Afropunk] is a subculture with its own distinct visual identity. I have always been fascinated with people who use uniforms or adornment to create an identity for a group, how they express their individuality within the terms of that group, and how that group gives them strength.”

Erin started covering the Afropunk festival in 2010. After the festival took a break for Hurricane Sandy in 2012, she resumed shooting it the following year. “By 2013, I was in different mind frame about shooting everything. I was sick of the set-up lighting that I had always done and wanted to be free of assistants and equipment. I bought a new 70-200mm lens which enabled me to shoot from further away and kind of hide on the sidelines. I concentrated on the fans. This past summer I wanted to document behind the scenes with the artists and the organizers—more of a ‘day in the life.’ As I have gotten older, I feel less inhibited and kind of invisible when I am photographing documentary style. With so many other photographers shooting, no one is paying attention to me.”

I first met Erin in the late 1990s when I was the design director at VIBE magazine. Erin was on a dusty playground on Manhattan’s East Side shooting a staff portrait for the magazine’s 5th anniversary issue. Holding the attention of VIBE‘s young and energetic staff was a massive undertaking, requiring both a steely-eyed focus, an enthusiastic spirit, and a whole lot of patience. Erin has all of those skills, and the photograph was a big success.

Since then I’ve had the pleasure of working with her many times –hip hop stars for VIBE, feel-good family stories for Reader’s Digest, business executives for Fortune, and everything in-between. Her work on subcultures include “Modern Families,” a personal series about hipster parents and children, which she showed me a few years ago at her Brooklyn studio. It’s a smart representation of the incredible diversity of contemporary families. Her series “Floggers,” for example, concerns teenage bloggers who post their photos on Fotolog to document their own style, while her series “Mamas Adolescentes” concerns teenage pregnancy.

I’m a big fan of subcultures myself, and I love the mashup of music, fashion, and different communities that Erin documents in “Afropunk.” The work is joyful and loaded with style, a mix of photojournalism and street fashion photography that captures all the brilliance and youthful passion of this musical and cultural scene.

Robert Newman is a magazine and media consultant and the creative director of Newmanology. Follow him on Twitter. For more on Erin Patrice O’Brien, please visit her website or follow her on Instagram.

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