David O’Mara recalls the job that started it all. “A family friend knew someone who had a painting business and they said, ‘Oh, you went to art college, you’ll be fine!’ ” He’s laughing. “But I hadn’t touched a paintbrush for years. I was into concept art.
It was 2001 and O’Mara had just moved from Ireland to London with his girlfriend; he had never considered working on a construction site, but he needed the work and soon realized he could learn the skills. He also realized that money was good, much better than in the arts. “I considered working in a gallery, but those jobs are hard to come by and they often don’t want to pay you,” he says. “It’s crazy. Most of the time you need a lot of cultural capital even to be considered.”
And cultural capital—an easy familiarity with upper-class values and traditions—was something he didn’t have, despite the college degree in art. Born in 1973 and raised in Waterford, South East Ireland, O’Mara grew up working class. Discovering the fine arts through books, he studied in his hometown and then at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, where he became interested in conceptual art and the situationists, the social revolutionaries who inspired the demonstrations of Paris in 1968, then to the punks.
O’Mara entered the photographs found by the Situationists. Inspired by their ideas of urban planning and the proliferation of images under consumerism, he roams the streets of Dublin in search of discarded photographs and negatives. When he arrived in London, he continued the practice, walking to work and returning to search for lost photos. He also got into the habit of carrying a camera and taking his own photos, and eventually started photographing at work.
“When I started painting and decorating I was very intimidated by the surroundings, but a few years later I was much more relaxed,” he says. “I knew everyone around me and I always had my camera, so I started taking pictures. Nobody had a problem with it, although sometimes they pissed on it. They were my friends – we worked together, we laughed together. It can be a lot of fun on location, there is a lot of autonomy compared to working in an office.
O’Mara’s images show some of the pure labor that goes into the sites, with shots of builders hard at work shoveling or drilling, sparks flying. But there are also photographs that capture the surreal nature of taking a place apart and putting it back together: a pair of feet dangling from the ceiling, for example, or gloves laid casually on a ladder. Some of the images show O’Mara’s colleagues giving her the two-finger salute, or showing her their own photos on their phones, highlighting her personal connection and a sense of intimacy. Art and manual labor don’t have to be worlds apart, his shots suggest.
The crews in London are multicultural, often including immigrants as well as working-class Brits. O’Mara saw an Indian carpenter and a Polish mason communicate about a job in German, the only language they had in common. He also met real characters. His first boss was a philosophy graduate whose best friend had gone away from the army and was sleeping under the kitchen table.
Then there was the electrician expelled from Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Polish musician who would play his own experimental compositions on the spot. To O’Mara, this music sounded “like noise”, but he enjoyed the creative spark, as well as others with less obvious flair. “Everyone has a story and a story to tell,” he emphasizes. “Everyone has interests. It may not be official, but everyone knows something.
O’Mara continued to pursue her art, painting and decorating five days a week, then spending Saturdays in the darkroom printing her own images. In the early 2000s, he set up a major exhibition which he financed by putting “seven days a week on the building sites”. The pictures were mounted on aluminum, which he then had to lift each time he moved. “I thought, ‘There must be an easier way!’ he laughs and, remembering his first love for art books, he decides to publish a magazine.
Called Detritus, his magazine was printed on newsprint to cut costs and make it easy to give away. In 2012, O’Mara was also collecting handmade books of his images: single copies or just a handful at a time, printed on papers he found on the street and stored in boxes or suitcases that he found in dumpsters. He created his latest handmade book a few months ago, printing it on decorator liner paper and giving the cover a lick of house paint. Called Spit and Sawdust, this is an edition of just five copies, priced at £200 each.
O’Mara claims that he is bad at marketing and quickly gets tired of trying to make a name for himself on the London gallery scene. “Hideous”, he calls her. “Going to openings and trying to network made me paranoid.”. But he managed to get seen on his own terms. He created an Instagram account, @detrituszine, in 2017 and quickly began to attract photography curators and publishers. He started selling his handmade books via Photo library in 2019 after meeting its owner at a photo book festival.
In 2019, he released his first book with a publisher, If you can piss… (title derived from the site epithet: “If you can piss, you can paint”), published by Jannuzzi Smith. This year he will be releasing another book, In Situ, with “a little punky outfit” Salt n Pepper Press. He decided to work with publishers, he says, because manual work is rarely shown in photography, let alone taken by the people who do.
“Photography is a middle-class ghetto,” he says. “There’s not a lot of working-class representation in photography, and I really hate poverty porn — bleeding-heart middle-class liberals taking on the working class as a subject. Once I started accumulating a body of images, I tried to think of equivalent projects and failed. So I thought that was something worth it.
For O’Mara, this lack of representation is linked to a wider malaise and the erasure of working class lives and work. The traditional route to learning a trade or craft has been devalued, he says, as has nursing, or even teaching; manual labor is now considered “dirty”. This erasure is quite literal on construction sites, where the goal is to paint yourself out the door and then leave. “You make everything immaculate,” he says. “When you leave, you shouldn’t look like you’ve been there.”
For O’Mara, photography is a means of preserving this work, as well as the dirt that accompanies it; he often uses black-and-white film, partly because it’s cheaper, partly because it can handle the varied light on location, but also because it shows grime. “Dirt is a big part of the job,” he laughs. “You get sweaty and dirty. My work is physical and I enjoy that aspect, just as I enjoy the physical aspect of printing photographs.