Photography Student Wins Chance to Participate in Red Bull Illume Workshop

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Photo by Matt O'Brien, B.F.A. photography student.

Academy of Art University photography major Matt O’Brien hadn’t planned on trying to win a spot in Red Bull Illume’s first collegiate workshop for action sports photographers. He was heading out of town when the email soliciting submissions from students at 300 colleges throughout the country arrived in his inbox.

“I thought it sounded cool, but I was on my way to Southern California,” explained O’Brien, whose photographs have appeared in magazines such as Surfer and Surfer’s Journal, among other publications. “I was driving down I-5 when [School of Photography Academic Administrator] Channing Arthur called me. She told me to sign up for the contest because I was a strong contender, so I pulled over and emailed my entry.”

Arthur was right. Two days later, O’Brien received a call from Red Bull Illume representative Matthew Partida. O’Brien learned he was one of 15 finalists who Red Bull would fly to Chicago to participate in a workshop led by some of the world’s top professional action and adventure sports photographers. The workshop leaders were former winners of the annual Red Bull Illume Image Quest competition.

Hundreds of photography students applied for the opportunity. To be considered for the workshop, they had to submit their portfolios and five images that best represent their style. Red Bull Illume judges were impressed with O’Brien’s unique point of view. They also wanted to see how a surf photographer used to working around the ocean would apply that perspective to shooting on a lake in Chicago.

O’Brien’s interest in documenting surfing and other action sports with his camera ignited in 2009. He began shooting his friends who were doing these sports in his hometown, Laguna Beach. In 2013, O’Brien enrolled in the Academy’s School of Photography to hone his existing skills and gain new ones. He will graduate with a B.F.A. later this year.

“My time at the Academy has definitely helped me get better with various techniques, like lighting and post-processing,” said O’Brien, who currently works for local photography supplies and services company Lumoid. “The faculty has also been great about helping me take advantage of opportunities like the Red Bull Illume workshop.”

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Photo by Matt O'Brien, B.F.A. photography student.

O’Brien and the other workshop participants flew to Chicago earlier this month, courtesy of Red Bull. They stayed in the Hard Rock Hotel and enjoyed a whirlwind weekend of learning and having fun in the Windy City. According to O’Brien, the students were divided into separate groups. Each group photographed one of three different athletes: a stand up paddle boarder, a BMX biker or a slackline enthusiast.

“We each had a two-and-a-half hour slot, either at sunrise or sunset, to shoot our athlete and get help from professional mentors,” he said. “I photographed the paddle boarder and was assigned Ryan Taylor, a 2013 Red Bull Illume winner, as my mentor.”

Since participating in the Red Bull Illume collegiate workshop, O’Brien has been asked to serve as one of three judges for the Academy’s upcoming drone photography competition. Called Out of Bounds, the contest is supported by Red Bull. Judges will pick winners in three categories: Best Zoom Out, Long Exposure and Free for All. The event takes place on Friday, Oct. 21 and is free and open to the public. For more information or to RSVP for the event, go to

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Photo by Matt O'Brien, B.F.A. photography student.