Tony O’ Brien Receives Rotary Distinguished Artist of the Year Award

Head of the Photography Department, Tony O'Brien. Photo by Kyleigh Carter.

Head of the Photography Department Tony O’Brien. Photo by Kyleigh Carter.

The Rotary Club of Santa Fe Foundation will be holding its annual Rotary Foundation Gala May 3, at which they will honor their Distinguished Artist of the Year. Every year the foundation chooses a New Mexico based artist to honor. The artist must have excelled in his or her field and must be nominated by local artists and galleries. This year, the foundation has chosen to honor photographer and Santa Fe University of Art and Design Photography Department Chairman Tony O’ Brien.

Photo by Tony O'Brien.

Mujahideen, (afghan rebels, war with the soviets) – Logar. Photo by Tony O’Brien.

Rotarian Reid Callanan contacted various local galleries and art directors asking them to submit nominees. “[Callanan] reached out to me and asked me if I had any recommendations and Tony was mine…He was the first person who came to mind. It was really no question,” says VERVE Gallery of Photography Director Jennifer Schlesinger. Out of dozens of nominees, Callanan compiled a list of six to eight artists for the Rotary Arts Committee to vote on. Weeks of deliberating and research later, O’Brien was chosen to receive the award.

“[The award] means a lot. I’m very honored and I’m very humbled. To be recognized in your community is really quite wonderful. It’s towards the end of my career also, so it’s just a nice kind of way to meander on,” O’Brien said about receiving the award. O’Brien started his career in Santa Fe, NM. He graduated from the College of Santa Fe—which later became SFUAD—in 1969 and worked for newspapers such as The New Mexican. He also helped start The Albuquerque Journal and was one of the first photographers on The Santa Fe Reporter. “[This award] brings me back to community because most of my work that I did in later years was not in New Mexico. It was out of the country and overseas. In a sense, it’s bringing me home,” O’Brien says.

Tony O’Brien Artist Video from VERVE Gallery of Photography on Vimeo.

O’Brien is most known for his work in the Middle East where he photographed refugees, soldiers and both Afghanistan and Syria landscape. “I lived in Peshawar for a year and we would go in and out with the Mujahideen and the rebels at that time,” O’Brien says. “One of the things I’m most proud of is doing the children’s book,” he says, referring to Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan, which is about Afghan children of different ages, backgrounds and ethnicities that O’Brien co-authored with filmmaker Mike Sullivan. “Being able to spend time with children in Afghanistan was a real gift.”

Photo by Tony O'Brien.

Rebel Outpost, Paktika Province, war with the Soviets. Photo by Tony O’Brien.

O’Brien also describes a news story he was working on about Syrian refugees in which he was surprised. “I was trying to think of having a focus for the piece and I thought about asking them what was the most important thing they brought with them. It ranged from many different things, but…I remember one woman saying ‘photographs of my children,’ and I could just see the photographs, these little snapshots in her hands and thinking ‘wouldn’t that be incredible?’” When O’Brien asked to see the photographs, he was surprised when the women pulled out an iPhone. “It’s a new world we live in,” he remembers thinking. “For a number of them, so much was on their phone; pictures of their home, pictures of their children or their parents,” he says.

O’Brien is also known for his photographs of the Benedictine Abbey in Abiquiu, many of which are published in his book Light in the Desert: Photographs from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, which is an exploration of daily life at The Monastery of Christ in the Desert near Abiquiu, NM during O’Brien’s year long residency.

O’Brien’s work is both incredibly honest and stunningly compassionate. His photographs of the Middle East show “the human side of conflict, particularly when it comes to children,” says Callanan, who goes onto say that O’Brien’s work in the Middle East “shows everyday life happening in combat.” O’Brien’s work at The Monastery of Christ in the Desert is equally breathtaking, with a stunning usage of light and shadow that embodies the peaceful stillness of prayer.

Photo by Tony O'Brien

Mullah, rebel spy. Photo by Tony O’Brien

O’Brien’s work ethic mirrors the tone of his photography. “Tony works with great compassion for his subjects,” says Schlesinger. “I think he’s very unusual in that way. He gets to know his subjects. He has a human compassion for them that really comes through in his photographs.” O’Brien also extends this to his students at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. “In everything he does, he does it with his all. Whether he is teaching or photographing, his all is in it,” says sophomore Photography major Marco Rivera. Photography senior Kyleigh Carter agrees and says that O’Brien is very “involved in his student’s lives. [He] really cares about all his students, even the ones who are not photo students.”

A collection of O’Brien’s work can be seen at the VERVE Gallery of Photography at 219 East Marcy Street, Santa Fe, NM. He will be honored at the Rotary Foundation Gala May 3 at the Hotel Santa Fe. Tickets for the gala are $50. For more information and tickets, contact Pat Mente at