Dean O'Brien's Blog

Meeting up with Irish Photographer Sean Hillen & the ‘Return to Irelantis’ exhibition in Dublin

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I was first introduced to the work of Sean Hillen by my tutor Richard Smyth whilst completing a BTEC National Diploma at City College in Coventry.  I managed to make contact with Sean last year and I was invited to come to Dublin to see his ‘Return to Irelantis’ photographic exhibition.  I considered this an honour and was looking forward to getting inside the mind of Sean and having a greater understanding of  what inspires his photomontages.  These are ‘old school’ cut and paste photomontages often completed with the use of a microscope.  Seeing the originals on display was truly amazing and whilst viewing the exhibition, Sean was only too happy to talk me through each individual photomontage and explain the narrative behind them.  The ‘Irelantis’ images have appeared on  nearly twenty book covers.  These combine Sean’s wit with surreal life like scenarios.  After the exhibition we went to Sean’s studio and home to see how these are created.  This was a great opportunity to peer into the life of an artist and their private workspace.  Sean’s workspace takes up his whole home.  Whichever way you turn there are ideas, cuttings, photos and postcards.  Sean is constantly surrounded by his work and this is how he likes to operate.  We all know that some of your best ideas come to you in the middle of the night so for Sean this is a dream come true.  Sean has also undertaken sculptural pieces, most recently the Omagh Bomb Memorial which has received both popular and critical acclaim.

One project that Sean is in the middle of involves photographing found money on the streets.  Sean explained that many people feel that its ‘beneath them’ to be seen picking up dropped money on the streets and this fascinated him. However, since the recession he has noticed a distinct lack of change now left ‘un-claimed’ so to speak.  I found this project interesting as Sean had thought quite deeply about peoples motives for not bothering to or wanting to be seen picking up money from the floor.  It made me think deeper about my own projects and their meanings.  Sometimes my own work lacks a deep enough narrative and listening to Sean speaking brought this home to me.

Where does Sean go from here?  Well there are plans for a book and he has loads of different projects on the go.  These projects do need sorting into an order so to speak.  Sean still has all the original  images from his ‘Troubles’ photomontages and personally I would like to see these shown as a separate exhibition.  I think even Sean will admit that he needs all this organising.  A more easier to use website is a major priority.  It would be great to see Sean showing some work in the U.K at some point.  Problems with showing his controversial ‘Troubles’ work in the U.K many years ago should now be long forgotten and it would be great to get these on display along with the supporting original images from which they were made.

Sean Hillen is an amazing artist and after spending time with him in Dublin it gave me amazing inspiration.  Inspiration to travel and meet people.  Inspiration to put my own projects into action today and not hold things back.  Meeting people such as Sean has been an important learning curve in my educational life as a photographer.  We cannot simply survive on youtube links and books alone.  We need to be creating our own future by getting out there and talking to artists.  I’m glad that he took the time to show me his world.  His studio, his current projects even his favourite cafe.  I left Ireland feeling refreshed and educated.  This is what I wanted from our meeting.  Its at this point I want to thank him for taking the time to invite me into his world.  It was a real privilege.

The learning outcomes from going to meet artists such as Sean are endless.  I learnt how to look at things through his eyes.  We all see things differently and I left myself open to see how Sean looked at the world.  I am beginning to understand that photography is not about the equipment that you carry.  Cameras are just tools for the job.  People and social skills play a massive role in photography also.

Before starting at University I would not have thought that meeting Sean would have been possible.  However, we are encouraged.  Encouraged to engage directly with people who we admire or need to know more about.  New forms of social media now make this possible.  No more red tape or letters being posted hoping that they end up on the right desk.  Thanks to sites such as Twitter,  direct contact is now possible.  A link to your website shows these people who you are and what you are about, complete with contact details.  This helps to make the transition from spectator to participant a real possibility.  It sounds so simple, and it is.

For further information on Sean and his work go to:


Written by Dean O'Brien

February 19, 2010 at 12:48 am

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