Matthew O'Brien

Tender Photos of Colombia's Beauty Amidst Times of Strife

American photographer Matthew O'Brien spent a decade documenting the people and places of Colombia.

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Oct 1 2017, 11:26pm

Matthew O'Brien

In 2011, the American photographer Matthew O'Brien made a trip to 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.

Of course, O'Brien kept some of the Acandí photographs for himself. They are among the many included in his book No Dar Papaya, a collection of Polaroids made in Colombia from 2003 through 2013.

Over the course of that decade, the Colombian news was dominated by stories of war, cocaine trafficking, and violence. Tragic imagery, in fact, is so familiar to the people of Colombia that they have a word for it: pornomiseria—"misery porn." But when O'Brien showed his early Polaroids to a Colombian colleague, she was surprised to see that they were not pornomiseria.

He didn't set out to photograph the beauty and generosity of Colombia as a counterpoint to the photographs of crime and cruelty, but somewhere along the way, that's what he did.

O'Brien won his Polaroid 690 in a contest back in the 1990s. But even then, it was an uncommon camera. He says it's difficult to use, in part because of its uncharacteristically shallow depth of field. With a digital camera, O'Brien can shoot an unlimited number of portraits. But with the instant camera, he has to pick his moments carefully. In 2008, halfway through his book project, the film for the camera was discontinued.

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.

One of the artist's favorite portraits features a young boy in Punta Gallinas, La Guajira, holding a a stick with a wheel on each end. When O'Brien asked him about it, the boy told him, "It's my toy!" It was a remote area, and when the kids wanted to entertain themselves, they built toys from scratch. "He was proud," the photographer remembers.

No Dar Papaya is a joyful book, but O'Brien doesn't see Colombia through rose-colored glasses. Although the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace accord with the Colombian government in November 2016, other armed groups remain. O'Brien describes the situation as "precarious." He still reads about the labor leaders and peasant organizers who have been slaughtered by right-wing paramilitary groups, and he continues to hear firsthand accounts of the atrocities from Colombian friends.

The photographer has also felt some of that fear for himself. He was threatened with a knife and mugged by three men in 2010. "They were prepared to kill me over a $20 cellphone," he writes in his book.

If you're not Colombian, it might be hard to notice any trace of that anxiety in O'Brien's book. People from Colombia, on the other hand, will understand the significance of the book's title, and in it, they'll find an acknowledgement of some of their shared trauma.

No Dar Papaya literally translates to "Don't Give Papaya." As an idiom, it exists as a warning against showing any weakness. In other words, always be aware and on guard. Or, as O'Brien puts it, "don't present an easy target."

Over the course of his project, O'Brien saw Colombia change. When friends from Colombia see his earlier work, they're quick to point out distinct differences from the present day. Police officers, for instance, no longer wear the uniforms they did in 2003. Back then, tourists were wary of traveling to Colombia. Now, the hostels are filled with young backpackers.

The photographer says he's ready to move on and visit someplace new, but he does carry some nostalgic feelings for the country. He lived in an apartment in Medellín for six months, and he misses making lulo juice in his blender and buying arepas from a local food stand. He tasted breadfruit for the first time in San Andrés. At one point, he had a girlfriend in Colombia, and he has happy memories of their time together.

O'Brien has been able to stay connected with some of his subjects, but unfortunately he doesn't know what became of the Emberá family he met in Acandí. Around Colombia, thousands of indigenous people have been violently threatened by illegal armed groups and forced out of their homes. Still, O'Brien has not forgotten the blissful day by the river, and how pleased they were to receive the Polaroids. "I like to think they still have those pictures somewhere," the photographer tells me, "they might."

Find No Dar Papaya here.

All photos by Matthew O'Brien

Click here to visit Matthew O'Brien's website.

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