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A Polaroid View of Colombia

In a new book, Matthew O’Brien captures an often-overlooked side of the country on pieces of instant film.

Matthew O'Brien

When the American photographer Matthew O’Brien first traveled to Colombia in 2003, he knew that the country had a reputation for violence. Stories of war, kidnappings, and drug trafficking flooded the media. O’Brien arrived in Colombia to document something quite different: its national beauty contests. He also found unexpected moments of peace and stillness throughout its cities and landscapes.

Much of Colombian photography by foreigners, O’Brien says, focuses on the tragic. “It is so common that in Colombia there is a term for that kind of photography: pornomiseria,” he adds. “But as a human being and as a photographer, I am not drawn to violence and misery,” O’Brien says. “I am drawn to beauty, and I find beauty in all kinds of situations.”

Matthew O’Brien

After publishing his images of the Colombian beauty contests, O’Brien felt a pull to return to the country, to capture it through his lens on his terms. He made several return trips, and in 2010 was awarded a Fullbright Fellowship to continue his work. Those images are collected in his book No Dar Papaya ($50, Placer Press), which will be released on July 20 to mark Colombia Independence Day.

The images in No Dar Papaya are all Polaroids. In contrast to digital photography, the scenes captured on instant film feel both more intimate and impressionistic; there’s “less emphasis on the descriptive and more on the emotional content,” O’Brien says. For much of his other work, O’Brien shoots 35mm film, holding an intense documentary focus on subjects ranging from the Colombian beauty pageants to the public school system in Oakland, California. On Colombia as a whole, he wanted to offer something thoughtful and meditative, something that spoke to the connection he felt with the country.

Matthew O’Brien

Throughout his travels, O’Brien liked to share his artistic process with his subjects. When he photographed a person, he’d invite them over to watch the image appear on the piece of film. Even if he was shooting a landscape, he waited for the film to develop before deciding whether to shoot another. “It’s a much more deliberate approach,” O’Brien says.

Matthew O’Brien

Colombia has changed since O’Brien first arrived to photograph. Cities like Cartagena and Medellín—where O’Brien was once attacked by a man with a knife—now feature in the South American backpacker circuit. Still, a layer of turmoil underpins the country. O’Brien’s photographs, though, are not a register of the country’s status or safety; they’re not an assessment, but a collection of moments and impressions.

Matthew O’Brien

In the introduction to the book, Juan Alberto Gaviria Velez, a curator from Medellín, wrote that the phrase no dar papaya roughly translates to ”allow no misfortune.” As a representation of a country “unfairly manipulated as reference [for violence] in the global imagination,” Velez added, O’Brien’s photographs would not hold up. But they do accomplish something profound. This visual investigation, Velez wrote, “focuses on trying to reveal the humanity of Colombians and their capacities to achieve what is longed for by all.”

Matthew O’Brien
Matthew O’Brien
Matthew O’Brien

No Dar Papaya, $50, at Placer Press.

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