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Spotlight: A Tender Look at Colombia as Elections Near

By David Schonauer   Tuesday May 22, 2018


Matthew O’Brien says he is drawn to beauty, “no matter the circumstance.”

“I like to create work that is affirming and has the potential to lift spirits,” said the San Francisco-based photographer in an interview with LensScratch  last November, when he debuted his book No Dar Papaya, a collection of Polaroid images shot in Colombia between 2003 and 2011 that provide what O’Brien calls an “alternative to the stories and imagery in the media of conflict, violence, drug trafficking, and assorted horrors” associated with the country.

The book caught the attention of news websites and blogs like LenScratch, precisely because of its unexpected view of Colombia: The San Francisco Examiner  noted that O’Brien “defies stereotypes” with the work. A Photo Editor’s Jonathan Blaustein called it “a cool, charming, surprisingly positive book.” Mother Jones  declared that O’Brien’s images would make readers forget Netflix's Narcos series about Pablo Escobar “in no time.”

Vice  told the story behind one of O’Brien’s Polaroids, taken in 2011 in Acandí, a coastal town in Chocó, Colombia:

There he met a group of indigenous Emberá kids playing by a river. He took pictures with his Polaroid 690 camera. As the children watched their portraits develop, their father, who was nearby, asked if he could keep some of the photographs. O'Brien agreed. He wrapped the Polaroids in some notebook paper for safekeeping and watched the family disappear into the forest.

O’Brien’s book was first published in Colombia, and the work went on view late last year at the Colombian consulate in New York. With Colombians going to the polls to elect a new president on May 27, O’Brien also sees the images as relevant to current events.

“I think it would be great to provide a different sort of context for articles about the elections, and I like to think that No Dar Papaya  does that,” he tells PPD.

The title of the book comes from Colombian phrase that roughly translates as “don’t give a papaya," which means “don’t be an easy target; show no vulnerabilities.” And it reflects O’Brien’s complex view of a country that suffered through a half-decade of civil war and drug-related violence.

O’Brien notes that Colombia still has plentiful problems, despite the end of the war between the government and FARC guerrillas. But what he saw and recorded when he traveled there over the years was the enduring spirit and beauty of Colombia’s people.

“It doesn’t mean to say that all of this other horrible stuff isn’t happening; but in the midst of that horrible stuff, there are these sweet wonderful people,” he told Artsy.

O’Brien first went to Colombia to work on a project about beauty pageants, noted the Examiner. Over the course of a decade, he returned frequently — first for an exhibition of his photographs, and later to teach photography as part of a Fulbright fellowship.

He took with him the Polaroid 690 camera he’d won a contest in the 1990s — a camera, he has said, that is difficult to use because of its shallow depth of field. Half way through the project, the film for the camera was discontinued, presently another obstacle.

“The tricky camera mechanics and scarcity of film forced O'Brien to slow down and make every frame count. It was a camera people noticed, and it offered him the opportunity to interact with his subjects. He allowed them all to pose as they wanted to be represented,” noted Vice.

“The softness and the distinctive color pallet of Polaroid gives an impressionistic quality that leaves more room for interpretation, reflecting the artist’s experience of Colombia: a foreigner in a new culture often doesn’t fully understand what he is observing– much is open to interpretation,” noted LensScratch.

“I didn’t have to deal with a tripod and hi tech equipment. You’re in diverse environments, from rain forests to city streets, and sometimes security is an issue, so not having to deal with lots of gear was key,” notes O’Brien. “And it wasn’t about filters and manipulating images at a computer — it’s pure photography that relies on the photographer’s vision.”

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Dispatches from Latin America