Life’s a Bitch, But You Survive: Photo Series by Bronagh O’Connor

Marianne Stenger
24th July 2022

As one of the sponsors for Westminster University’s BA Photography Degree Show, the Bob Books team had the privilege of selecting three winners from a very talented group of up-and-coming photographers. 

We’re very pleased to announce that the second place winner of the Bob Books Student Award 2022 is fashion and documentary photographer Bronagh O’Connor

Her photobook, Life’s a Bitch, But You Survive, is a poignant series that emphasises how strength of character and a positive outlook can help us cope with adversity. 

The selection of beautifully lit portraits paired with heartfelt quotes tell a story of courage and resilience in the face of life’s hardships. We had the opportunity to ask Bronagh a few questions about her photobook and the story behind it. 

Could you tell us a little about your style of photography?

Usually, my style of photography focuses on fashion based imagery. I like to push my creative boundaries and create work which has intense planning in areas of styling, direction and hair and makeup. 

However, for my recent project, Life's a bitch, but you survive, I wanted to challenge myself and create a project which was less planned and instead more about capturing images in the moment. My recent project being documentary has allowed me to explore a different genre of photography and create meaningful work.

Image © Bronagh O'Connor

How did the idea for this series and photobook come about? 

Life’s a bitch, but you survive is a memoir about my mum as she reflects on her journey with physical and mental health, as well as ageing and life at 55. The series documents my mum in her most vulnerable moments. 

Intimate portraits show my mum’s scarring from life saving operations after her stroke in 2020; alongside close up images of my mum’s stoma bag which physically and mentally changed her, but also saved her life. 

My aim with this project is to break the taboo of those with disabilities. The intimate images of my mum's stoma bag and scars are not for shock factor; the aim of publishing my images is to raise awareness of hidden disabilities and the taboo surrounding being labelled as disabled. 

Disabled bodies are normal, and more common than you think. Not all disabilities are visible and my project shows how much you can suffer in life, without others knowing, and still survive.

My mum has four children, has been married and divorced, worked for the NHS as a midwife, owned her own care company for the elderly, and has achieved so much in her 55 years of life. Documenting my mum at this stage in her life is so important to me. I know that my mum will not live forever, but she can through the life lessons she has passed on to her four children; to be brave and persevere. 

I am honoured to share my mum’s journey and document her as she continues to survive. This has been the most emotional and personal project I have created to date.

Could you tell us a little about your creative process with this series?  

Initially I found it quite challenging as I had never shot in a documentary style before. However, after a few days of shooting and following my mum around, I found it to be a really enjoyable experience.  

I used natural lighting for all my shots and did minimal editing as I wanted the images to be as raw as possible. When designing the book, my intention was to create something very personal. I modelled my book off of a traditional photo album.  

The title is engraved with my mum's handwriting which makes it even more personal. I’ve included images of my mum's childhood on the front and back pages too, which is nice as it reminds the reader that yes, the book is about a 55 year old woman, but it’s also about the 8-year-old version in her first holy communion dress; unaware of the challenging life she has before her.  

My goal going forward is to continue this project and create something bigger and better, as well as giving those with hidden disabilities a safe platform to share their journeys and inspire others.  

What’s the main thing you hope people will take away from this project? 

I hope that when people see my project, they take away the message that people with hidden disabilities are still disabled people. However, just because you are disabled doesn't mean you can't enjoy life; my mum has achieved so much  in her lifetime. 

Many are achievements which would have been harder for my mum to complete based on the average healthy middle aged woman, but this shows her bravery and perseverance even more. My mum's emotional story is to inspire those with disabilities that you can survive and achieve great things in life. I also wanted to commemorate my mum's saying ‘life's a bitch, but you survive.”

Want to see more of Bronagh O'Connor's work? You can follow her on Instagram @bronaghmay__ Visit the Bob Books blog to see more inspiring interviews with photographers and other creatives.