Portfolio: Matt O'Brien, "No Dar Papaya"

The photographer and publisher Alec Soth and I have started a small project together on our mutual sites that will take a look at contemporary photography in Colombia. We're looking at trends and traditions; events, institutions, and venues; as well as photographers who deserve more recognition for the work that they are doing there.

Even as we talk with more people and get feedback and suggestions from readers - as well as from the photographer and educator Gabriel Mario Vélez who will be joining us on this project - we've started looking at and posting work. Soth published a piece recently on the work of Guadalupe Ruiz and we featured the work of and a Q&A with Juan Orrantia. Here we continue with Polaroids made in Colombia from Matt O'Brien, as well as a short Q&A with him about his work there.

No Dar Papaya
This is my attempt to convey some of the beauty and diversity and otherworldliness that I like so much about Colombia.

I first went to Colombia in 2003 to photograph a story about beauty contests. I shot that project, Royal Colombia, with 35 mm film, but I also brought my Polaroid camera. Though I’d never been to Colombia, I had a feeling that Polaroid could be the right medium for me to explore the country. It turns out that it was, and it turns out that the project spans eleven years, 2003-2013, including a stint as a Fulbright Fellow in 2010.

The camera can be hard to work with—difficult to compose, tricky to expose properly (exposure control is a plastic wheel with black on one side and white on the other), and fragile. Polaroid film no longer being manufactured is yet another problem. But I like the softness and the otherworldly color pallet of Polaroid-- it works well with my experience of Colombia—and that is why that camera, which I have only because I won it in a contest many years ago, accompanied me throughout my travels in Colombia, from sweltering tropical rainforests to freezing snow-capped mountains, from the mean streets of inner city Medellin to posh neighborhoods of Bogotá to tranquil pueblos in the countryside.

The title, No Dar Papaya, is a common expression unique to Colombia which means show no vulnerabilities and present no easy target. It speaks to the reality of life in Colombia, now in its 50th year of war. Tens of thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes. Unspeakable cruelties continue to happen. It has a rigid class structure and the greatest disparity between haves and have-nots in Latin America. There’s lots of crime in the cities. Amid this, people live their lives with lots of creativity, joy, humanity and beauty, and that is what interests me.

fototazo: We have images of salt mines, a shotgun-wielding security guard, a Dalmatian, beauty pageant contestants…what do you see as the connective tissue of these images other than their being made in Colombia?

Matt O’Brien: I guess the connective tissue is that I made the photographs, and for the most part I've made them with this evolving notion of a project in mind. The concept is very simple: it's a personal exploration/take on Colombia. All photography is subjective, it reflects in one way or another how the person taking the pictures perceives things-- what he or she finds beautiful or ugly or funny or poignant, amusing, etc. So, this series has been created responding to the world around me, when I'm in Colombia, and reflects my experiences and my sensibilities there. And it's not the world I grew up in - it's a pretty different world - so my perception is especially aroused, I guess. The other thing is that I am drawn to beauty, and so if I have succeeded with these images then maybe another connective tissue is that they all contain or reveal some beauty.

f: You have a number of street portraits. How did you find working on the streets and approaching people for portraits compared to working similarly in the US? What are your ways of approaching people while working in the streets generally?

MO: Approaching strangers on the street has always been kind of nerve-wracking for me, and so I do very little street photography. But, in Colombia, I'm in this situation where I am at work on this project, and I have a vision for it and it includes portraits, and my time is limited, so sometimes you just have to figure out how to engage this person whom you would like to photograph, and sometimes I am already engaged with someone and I realize it would be great to photograph him or her. But it all starts with conversation. People are friendly. I think sometimes me being a foreigner and having an accent I get the benefit of the doubt - I'm not likely to be a thief or up to no good.

If I would like to photograph someone, I sometimes ask. I explain the project I am at work on, and lots of times people are happy to participate - it becomes a collaboration, the making of the portrait. In the early years of the project when I could buy Polaroid film in Colombia, I gave away lots of Polaroids. After they stopped selling it, I couldn't do that anymore, so on many occasions I would have prints made from the Polaroids at a local photo lab and then give those prints to the people I had photographed - time-consuming and not exactly efficient, but I like to give people photographs. Some people don't have access to cameras and picture-making, and I find that sometimes they really treasure the photographs I give them, and it is very gratifying for me.

In 2011 I was in a village in El Chocó, this really remote forested area near Panama. This family of indigenous people appears one morning. We make several photographs. The father lets me know that they would like to take some Polaroid prints with them. How could I say no? So we take a few more, I write the date and some other information on the back of the prints, improvise some envelopes out of sheets of paper to protect the prints (I think they took notice of how I cared for them, that to me the photographs are objects of value), and this family took off on a path along the river through the forest. I like to think that they still have those photos and they are in a special place in their home somewhere deep in the forest.

f: What did you discover about the country and its people through the process of working with photography there that you might not have known or understood otherwise?

MO: I first went to Colombia in 2003 to photograph a project exploring beauty contests, so really, photography is an inextricable part of my relationship with Colombia. I was invited to exhibit that work the following year in Medellín and Cartagena, and to teach as well. So if it weren't for photography, I don't think I would have ever had this relationship with Colombia. I never would have gotten to meet so many people, to teach, to work with a variety of organizations in different regions, to begin to understand the culture.

I remember when I first taught in Colombia at the Universidad de Caldas in Manizales in 2004, I understood real quickly that photography is nowhere near as accessible to people as it is in the US. There are not only the costs of the equipment that are prohibitive for most, but there just aren’t as many opportunities to study photography, to take classes, to learn from experienced photographers.

From various teaching experiences I have had in Colombia, I have learned that there is a great value placed on creativity, and there is lots of respect for art. I am continually impressed by the creativity and the efforts put into creative pursuits by young people in Colombia, not just photography and visual arts, but all kinds of stuff, including theater and dance. My most enriching teaching gig when I was a Fulbright Fellow was at an all-girls public high school in Medellín. At the end of the year one of the classes put on a fashion show, and I was so impressed by the creativity and work of the students. There was a beautiful esprit de corps that recognized that they were in this pursuit together and that it was a lofty pursuit, as it was the results of their own creativity.

Plus, since one of the aims of the project was to show Colombia's diversity, photography was the reason (pretext) for traveling and seeing so much of the country.

f: As you worked to select and edit your images, how did you make decisions and establish criteria for which images to include and which not?

MO: Editing big projects has always been a challenge. I always end up with more images I like than I could use, whether for exhibition or publication. I guess the first criterion for deciding if an image is in or out, is if I think it is a good photograph –if the compositional elements and all those factors come together to make a picture that moves me, that conveys something I was hoping to convey when I decided to create the photograph.

Then you have to think about what other images are in the series. If I'm trying to share a vision of Colombia, and that vision includes a variety of images - people, places, things - well, then I want to make sure that I don't have too many portraits at the expense of some other kind of images, or that I don't have too many images from one place at the expense of images from another place. So, sometimes you end up not including some images you really love because its not just about the individual image, its about the images working together as a whole to get across the various ideas you want to get across. I'm still editing this project, actually, and for the book I'm dealing with sequencing, in which you are asking, in what order do I put the images, and why? You gotta figure out an organizing principle (chronology, geography, purely aesthetic, etc.), or you're lost.

f: What is your sense of contemporary photography in Colombia from your years traveling there? What are some of the tendencies and trends, issues and strengths of the medium there? Which photographers who work in Colombia would you recommend others take a look at?

MO: I have seen a lot of contemporary photography in Colombia over the last twelve years, and I find that it is all over the map in terms of themes and approaches. Some of it moves me and some doesn't, just like in the United States. And just like in the United States, some work is sincere and comes from the heart, and some work seems to be more contrived and functions more at a cerebral level rather than an emotional level.

I can't say though that I have my finger on the pulse of Colombian photography, and that I could identify current trends. I respond best to work that moves me emotionally, rather than work that seems to be about clever intellectual exercises. Liliana Correa, from Medellin, is a Colombian photographer whose work I admire very much. I think her work reflects not only very Colombian sensibilities both in terms of subject matter and approach, but it is full of heart and sincerity, and very well executed. Her series Alter Ego is wonderful. Juan Carlos Alonso, from Bogotá, is another Colombian photographer whose work I admire. Among the things I like about Juan Carlos' work is that it is quite diverse, and he is always doing new things-- experimenting, exploring, creating with new equipment, new media, new approaches-- and always with lots of heart and with a Colombian sensibility.

In May I taught a workshop in Santa Marta, and wow, some of the students were creating really impressive work. There's lots of creativity and talent in Colombia, and one of the things I love about Colombia is the different ways in which that creativity is expressed.


Matthew James O’Brien is a photographer and filmmaker whose work celebrates humanity and the natural world. Based in Berkeley, California, his work has been exhibited and collected by a number of institutions, including The California Museum of Photography, the Library of Congress, and the Museo de Arte Moderno de Cartagena. Among the awards he has received are a Fulbright Fellowship, a Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography Award, and a Community Heritage Grant from the California Council for the Humanities. He is currently at work on the book No Dar Papaya.