A row of orange barriers was the only thing that separated Patrick O'Brien from a line of police officers at the Asbury Park rally for social injustice and police brutality.
As protestors rallied around him, the moment seemed surreal to O'Brien. Nearly three months prior at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was laid off from his job. It was a position he'd held for five years. His future seemed uncertain -- everything seemed uncertain.
But there he was -- at the rally. In the front row alongside the protestors. His camera in his hands, watching as a black officer in the line facing him began tearing up.
It was in that moment that it became clear to O'Brien -- 27, of Matawan -- he was exactly where he was supposed to be, he said: Documenting history.
"[Photography] has given me a place in the world," he said. "It helped me regain my composure and process everything going on. It gave me an outlet for many different factors."
O'Brien woke up to an email from the president of the software company he'd been working for last March saying 20 people were going to be let go. He'd soon come to find out he was one of them.
"Initially I was surprised," he said, "because I was with the company for several years. "The people I worked with were like family and there were good times, but I didn't want that to be my end-all be-all."
Unsure of what the future held, O'Brien applied for unemployment benefits, then picked up his camera and started snapping photos.
He started on his own front porch, photographing birds and nature, and it wasn't long before he began venturing out. O'Brien captured the grocery store shoppers in face masks and gloves. Jungle gyms covered in caution tape. An eerily-empty Times Square.
"I started by capturing what was currently happening," said O'Brien, whose uncle was a photographer for the NYPD. "Then switched to the narrative of the families and people of the community."
A couple weeks into the coronavirus lockdown, O'Brien wrote a post in a local Facebook group looking for families to photograph on their front porch -- free of charge.
He saw a story on others doing it on the news, and was inspired to do the same, O'Brien said.
"People were like, 'What do you want us to do?'" And I said: 'Whatever you feel like. I’m here to capture whatever it is you want.'"
Some people dressed up in their pajamas and sat poised. Others donned their face masks and went wild.
One family came up with the idea to bring all of their Amazon boxes outside. They brought the dog they adopted during the lockdown and held a sign saying: "Coronavirus acquisition."
"I realized it gave people a break from the monotony of not doing anything," the photographer said. "To dress up and take photos without the pressure of having to go anywhere.
"I truly wanted images to define times," O'Brien said, "so I let them take [the photos] with masks on."
Eventually, O'Brien's photos over the course of the coronavirus pandemic began telling a story.
O'Brien's goal was to simply do as many photoshoots for people in his neighborhood that he could.
Capturing the protests in the wake of George Floyd's death were a completely different experience, O'Brien noted.
It was the first time in a long time that O'Brien felt like he had a purpose -- actually, he had two: Rallying with others and capturing the moments along the way, he said.
"It was a mission," he said, recalling a feeling of solidarity marching for his first time with others in Asbury Park.
"I started running to get the shots I wanted. I never had that feeling. I was documenting a piece of history and it was such an amazing feeling."
The experience encouraged him to open up -- take shots of people he otherwise wouldn't, he said. He followed up with many after taking their photo, offering to send them when he got home.
He tried to capture everything: The officers kneeling with the crowd and hugging protestors. Parents marching with their kids. The fight for justice.
Not only has the camera reconnected him with others, O’Brien says it’s taught him a thing or two about himself.
"I’ve learned I like being on the move and connecting with people.
"Photography has further led to me become more in touch with my emotions and has allowed me to connect with people on a slightly more significant level. I have more of an understanding of what drives me.
"Photography is the catalyst that helped push me in that direction."
Click here for Patrick O'Brien's website.
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