Sean O'Neal Is Choosing His Own Adventure

Sean O'Neal may be the son of John McEnroe and Tatum O'Neal, but his burgeoning photography career focuses on natural landscapes rather than his glamorous world. For his first solo show, opening today at LAM Gallery in Los Angeles, he turned his eye on the earthquake-ridden countryside of Nepal, which he visited with the nonprofit organization CITTA two months after the natural disaster on April 25, 2015. "The Strength and the Spirit," as the exhibition is called, features 26 images shot on O'Neal's Canon 60, with 25 percent of the proceeds from sales going to CITTA. (Though press on the exhibit thus far has centered around why he changed his surname to his mother's, and how he's using a fundraising website to bankroll his efforts.)

"Although relief efforts have helped to clear many areas of debris, construction is still at a halt," said the 28-year-old O'Neal. "People are still living in unimaginable conditions. What moved me was noticing that although the brick and mortar may be crumbling, the collective soul of the community remains positive and in good spirits." Prior to visiting Nepal, O'Neal shot exclusively in California, and makes a point to keep editing and correcting in his work to a minimum. Here, he talks traveling to a third world country and his obsession with nature.

Sean O'Neal. Courtesy of Sean O'Neal Photography.

How did you get into photography? I spent so much time as a pre-teen and teenager at the Metropolitan Museum, because I lived across the park. The Met has a big collection of Renaissance, Pastoral paintings, and Impressionism—I was mainly into the landscapes. And I would look at them and fantasize about what it would be like to wander around in those ancient landscapes. That, more than anything else, has shaped my photography. It's why I have a painterly approach to how I like to capture things for the camera.

You went to Nepal just two months after the earthquake. Was it hard to see that level of destruction?
Had I not known there was an earthquake, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell that something happened because everybody was seemingly so unaffected. And I mean that in the most positive way: They were working, very playful, and fun. It’s a very friendly, welcoming, spiritual place. There was this amazing quality, where everybody was going through their day, and just kind of worrying about the things they have to do, and focusing on the things that were in their control.

But the actual [physical] destruction was evident everywhere I was. We were stationed in Kathmandu. The roads were split apart, there was rubble everywhere. A lot of the smaller shops and buildings had huge holes in them. But that was nothing compared to what it was like in the countryside. There, the people build their own makeshift houses and shops out of tin and bricks. I didn’t see one little house or shop in the countryside that looked like it survived unscathed. People were living in tents and little shelters with scraps of tin metal as their roof.

How many pictures did you take over there? There’s 26 in the show, and I probably took like, 800. A lot of what I do is find the shot I want and then perfect it while I’m there. So it will be like 10, 15 shots in that series until I get the one that I like. I very much don’t like to edit at all. That’s one of the things that I pride myself on. I want to really immerse the viewer in what it was like as if they were there. So I don’t like doing Photoshop or Lightroom or any of that stuff. I had to do a little bit when I did the prints for the show, because there’s just certain things with low lighting, especially with people’s faces. But mostly I really try to get the shot just right.

Is this any sort of commentary on our over-filtered lives? I want to represent and also present to people the most authentic kind of art that I can. I don’t see anything anymore that’s unedited. I want to get people to start caring about the earth, and being proud of nature. And I think the best way to do that is not by changing the photo and making it look fantastical after the fact, but getting something so dynamic in the moment that when people see it they’re wowed by it. There’s so much stimulus and there’s so much oversaturation of information, especially photography, with smartphones and stuff. I’m trying to get people to slow down and absorb each photo in a way that’s more like what we would have done in the past.

This was the first time you shot outside of California. The idea that I had with California was to show people how beautiful the earth is through one state. I thought that could have a more powerful effect. And California is a great state in that way because it’s so diverse in its terrain.

Do you prefer landscapes over people? I wouldn’t say I prefer it, but it’s maybe the most exciting to me because there’s something really powerful and special about getting to be alone in these extremely remote places. And going to these extremes to get the perfect shot. I’ll walk to the top of the Kelso Dunes in the Mojave Desert, which is like three hours from your car to get to the top, and I’ll wait there for six hours until I get it. All of that stuff is really exciting to me. There’s less of that freedom when I’m taking pictures of people, because I have to rely on what they’re doing and follow them. And it's not just me in the world.

It’s funny that you say that it’s less freedom, because you set a lot of restrictions for yourself. You can definitely look at it that way—and it’s true, it is limiting. But if you think about how big California is—it’s, like, 20-something hours to get from L.A. to the very top. And that’s if you’re not really stopping. To me, there’s so much space and all of these diverse locations, it feels very freeing. The editing to me is not restrictive at all. All of my most powerful nature shots, I haven’t touched at all.

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