Why Sean McEnroe Changed His Name to Sean O'Neal

John McEnroe s son explains why he changed his name last year

Photo: Courtesy Sean O'Neal

He was born Sean McEnroe, the son of John McEnroe and Tatum O’Neal but last year, Sean decided to drop his father’s last name and take his mom’s as his surname.

“I changed my name to Sean O’Neal – it’s nothing against my dad but I wanted to have my own path that is not so directly linked to him because it’s just the way people have [always] perceived me,” O’Neal, 28, tells PEOPLE. “I just wanted to forge my own identity.”

As for his, at times, complex relationship with his father, he says, “We’re trying to work things out. We have some differences regarding how I should live my life but I respect him and I just want to do things on my own and make it my own way.

“We are just getting though some normal father and son stuff. When you grow up in a family like mine, it’s intense and everything is magnified in the media and when you have a lot of powerful people in one family and we have disagreements, they’re more intensified.”

O’Neal, a Los Angeles-based photographer, is hoping his first solo exhibition of pictures he took in Nepal after the earthquake – opening June 4, at Hollywood’s LAM Gallery – will help others begin to see him in a new way, for his work, rather than just his name.

“I went to Nepal two months after the earthquake to photograph the aftermath after I was asked by the founder of CITTA.org who had seen some of my photos to accompany them,” says O’Neal.

“They go to the most remote and poorest villages completely off the grid without electricity. One day we went in canoes made out of trees logs to cross a river to get to the village where they were bringing doctors and supplies. The purpose of the show is to immerse people in what it’s like to live in Nepal where they badly need money for infrastructure after massive damage to homes and businesses and where, even after one year, there is still very little progress.

“I had never been to a third world country and I was struck how generous people were. No matter what they had, they would offer us food. Every village, there were 15 or more kids who’d want to carry my equipment for me and even when I’d lay down to rest, they would all pile in and surround me and kept asking me my name, and my age.”

O’Neal first fell in love with art when he was a kid and his parents were going through a bitter divorce and custody fight over their three kids.

“Growing up, the Met was my sanctuary,” he says. “When things were difficult and there were a lot of those times when I was growing up, I would find myself wandering there and I always found it comforting and soothing to imagine myself in the landscapes.”

Now, he says, “I respect my family and my grandpa, Ryan O’Neal. They have all shaped who I’ve become and they are part of me. There were things that were difficult with my family but they all are good people and everyone makes mistakes and it’s best for me to have it as healthy as it can be where we can talk things out things in a cordial way and I hope they all come to my show.”

“My mom has been super supportive of this show and she’s a big advocate of my photographs,” he says. As for her relationship last year with Rosie O’Donnell (which O’Donnell s rep denied) he says, “It was kind of interesting to meet her and it didn t matter to me. My mom can do whatever she wants. I’m pretty open minded and if she wants to date a woman or a man, that s fine.”

When O’Neal started a GoFundMe site in March to help fund his work, he was surprised by the controversy that ensued. “I’ve seen famous musicians and bands do GoFundMes and raise money for a new project,” he explains. “There are some people who will think something negatively about it because they knew where I came from but I was trying to do pay for the framing myself on top of paying for a show. I have raised $500 I didn’t expect to.”

But he understands how it could be misunderstood as well. “I wanted to support myself without asking for my dad’s help,” he says. “I’m on my own, an adult and there is something powerful about starting from scratch and making your way on my own [but] some people really love the saga of the ‘cursed’ family.”

Asked if he thinks his family is cursed, he says, “My family isn’t cursed, it’s just complicated.”

In the end, O’Neal hopes his name will help the people he met in Nepal. “Twenty five percent of the proceeds from the show will go to Citta.org. and their ongoing work in Nepal,” he says. “I want to use what is in my power to help the people I met and if my name helps, then that’s great.”

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