Someone’s Pain

Themes which Kelsey O’Brien explores in her art work are tough: domestic violence, harassment, death. Prior to our meeting I anticipated a serious, austere person and it was surprising to find a cheerful and self-confident woman.

"There has always been a part of me that needs to validate the real experience of being human, which is painful. Pain is a universal human experience. Everyone can relate,”- says Kelsey O’Brien. Her work is autobiographical, but when I look at Kelsey’s smiling young face and hear her confident voice, I cannot fully believe her. There is a stereotype of how pain should look like and a lively smile isn’t associated with it. This contradiction is confusing and I think about how little chance we have to get to know someone’s pain if it is hidden behind a prosperous facade. In a society that does not encourage open expression of fear and frustration, pain of the other often remains unnoticed and neglected. Often, art is the only territory where the conversation of pain is appropriate.

"Karstand" , screen shots by courtesy of Kelsey O'Brien

"Karstrand" is a short film based on Kelsey O’Brien’s family archive that reconstructed the trauma that took place in her home. Home footage, filmed by her father, and shows the happy life of a family: a big house, a beautiful wife and five children. However, a female voiceover tells us a different story spoken from the mother’s journal. This poignant story of oppression, fear and hatred reveals that women are still unprotected in modern western households. The male position is also ambiguous and vague. The man remains behind the camera almost during the entire movie. We do not know what he looks like and almost never hear his voice. Only in prologue of the film do we see footage of the man demolishing a small wooden house. We observe him from the back, in a shirt and jeans, tall and wiry; a sort of macho from the Midwest. He swung the building by leaning all his weight. When the shed fell, he slowly walked out of the frame, and not once turning his face to the viewer.

"Servers" , photo by courtesy of Kelsey O'Brien

"Servers" is a series of young women’s portraits that explores systematic and institutional oppression in the nightlife industry. These women work at the bars and nightclubs of Chicago and New York. The subjects talk about their role as a woman and what it meant in this industry and how it related to and affected their job and life outside of it. The unspoken rules usually suggest that girls sell not only alcohol, but also seduction. Kelsey talked with the women about their working experience and the portraits are accompanied by quotations from the interviews. One of her subjects said: “I work as a teacher, something I dreamt all my life to do, its not enough money to support yourself… I have to work double, triple to make not even half of the money I made as a server…What are the values of this country, if you pay more to those women who walk around half naked? Right now I am jealous who I was before.” This well-paid job raises questions which Kelsey explain don’t have simple answers. How far can this ambiguous game lead? Where is the line between flirting and harassment? Who are manipulators and who are victims?

"Servers" , photo by courtesy of Kelsey O'Brien

“Eighteen Days” is a body of work specially looks at mortality and fragility of life. It is another subject that is displaced on the outskirts of the Western culture. Kelsey O’Brien shows a process of dying as an inevitable part of everyone’s life. “I wanted my audience to confront death and accept it for what it is, this is what it looks like when someone knows they are going to die, this is what death actually looks like, it is something to not be afraid or mourn. I cannot speak for everyone just this person, and this experience.”

"Eighteen Days" , photo by courtesy of Kelsey O'Brien


Kelsey O'Brien is a visual artist that works at the intersection of fine art documentary and political issues. Her work uses and manipulates existing social constructions to challenge our preconceptions of class, femininity and transactional relationships. O'Brien's autobiographical work details the complexity of abuse and human relationships. She holds an MFA in Photography and Related Media at Parsons, The School for Design. O'Brien is currently based in New York City.