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CREDIT: Bryan O’Brien

Adoptee experience inspires MA graduate

Marguerite Penrose, adopted woman born in 1974, at her home in County Meath, Ireland. From the series Permanent Placement Possible.


Bryan O’Brien, chief videojournalist for the Irish Times, returned to education as a mature student at the London College of Communication (LLC). Finding inspiration in his background as an adopted person, he created a final year project that asks questions about the rights of the individual to discover their own identity.

O’Brien, five times the Press Photographers Association of Ireland’s Photographer of the Year, graduated this summer from the online MA photojournalism and documentary photography course. Here he describes why he decided to take a journey of personal discovery for his final year project.


Framed photo of Mary and Bernie O’Brien on their wedding day. From an Instagram-based project @killarneymam by Bryan O'Brien.

“I’ve returned to study in my middle age. Since the 1980s, I have worked as a press photographer. Taking pictures for newspapers usually involves illustrating other people’s ideas and doing so with objectivity.

“Taking on an MA at LCC has allowed me to look at my own life for inspiration. It began with my Instagram-based project @killarneymam – an imagined social media feed my mother might have generated in the 1970s. Making this work, blending past with the present, using archival and constructed photography to represent real and imagined memories, inspired my final year project at LCC


Liz, born in 1973 and adopted, traced her biological parents through the use of a researcher. From the series Permanent Placement Possible.


Permanent Placement Possible is my final year project. It takes as a starting point a legal anomaly that exists in Irish law. In Ireland, an adopted person who is an Irish citizen has no right to access their birth certificate or adoption records, while an Irish citizen born in the UK has the right to see all documents relating to their birth and adoption.

“Irish law and governmental agencies prioritise a natural mother’s right to privacy rather than the provision of information to the adopted person.


Liz shows the mam and dad tattoos on her forearms. From the series Permanent Placement Possible.


“As an adopted man myself, born in the UK but reared in Ireland, I’ve traced my place and circumstances of birth, my original name and other information. I photographed this experience, and interviewed and recorded other adopted men and women who have and haven’t been as successful in finding their personal data.

“The people I speak to are sometimes opening up about their adoption to a stranger for the first time. They are sometimes vulnerable about their situation. The more I engaged with my subjects the more I realised the ways they look for information is less interesting than the reasons they do so.

“They speak of an itch that can’t be scratched, about an absence that is hard to define, and of a gap that exists after they have unearthed the information and sometimes traced and met their biological parents. One subject, James, likened this to ‘Hiraeth’ – a Welsh concept denoting a longing for a homeland you have never been to, or a nostalgia for something never experienced.”

CREDIT: Bryan O’Brien

Kevin, who was born in February 1973 and adopted in April of that year. From the series Permanent Placement Possible.


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