Interview: Photographer Matt O’Brien on Colombia, art and his new book

Jessica Gleason/Staff

Photographer and UC Berkeley alumnus Matthew O’Brien visited Berkeley this week on behalf of the Center for Latin American Studies. He spoke with The Daily Californian about his work in Colombia and the book that resulted — a unique portrayal of the country called “No Dar Papaya” that showcases Polaroid pictures. The title comes from a Colombian phrase meaning “show no vulnerabilities,” according to O’Brien. The book was published in Colombia last year.

The Daily Californian: What is your book centered on, and how do you hope the book will affect the general public?

Matthew O’Brien: It is really Polaroid photographs that I made over 11 years in Colombia. It does not really look at one particular issue, like a community of fishermen or the struggle of workers or something like that. It is broader, and it is really a guy and just personal exploration and a personal take on Colombia. There are portraits, there are landscapes, there are images of moments, although the Polaroid camera does not really lend itself to capturing action. The idea is that it presents an alternative vision of Colombia because the dominant imagery in the American media — and I think the international media, in general — about Colombia is about war, violence and problems. There is plenty of that in Colombia, but that is not what interests me as an artist or a photographer or as a person. I am more drawn to beauty, and that is what these pictures are about.

DC: What made you want to focus on Colombia specifically?

MO: So much of life has to do with luck and opportunities, so I went to Colombia first in 2003 to photograph a specific project called “Royal Colombia,” and it was looking at Colombia through the prison of beauty contests. During that time, there was a national beauty contest that has a lot of money behind it and corporate sponsorship, and many of the women who compete have had cosmetic surgery. At the same time, there is a popular beauty contest in which women from poor neighborhoods in Cartagena, who are mostly dark skinned, compete. I thought that seemed like a very interesting “in” to a society and culture whose concepts of beauty have ideas of class and race to explore for an outsider. It ended up being a really fabulous experience, and I was invited back the following year to exhibit and teach, and that led to other invitations and opportunities, ultimately giving me a full-ride fellowship to continue working on this project and teaching university students.

DC: How does your work differ from that of other photographers and journalists in Colombia?

MO: Mine is different in a lot of ways because, for example, if I were to compare the images I made when I was photographing the beauty contests with (those of) the Colombian press photographers, they were there on an assignment and knew what their newspaper or magazine wanted. They wanted a picture of the events of that day, of who won this category and who won that. I was there more as an outsider and more of an artist. I did not have an editor whom I had to please, and so I looked at it more as a societal phenomenon and a way into the culture. In that respect, there is a big difference there — the perspective you bring. With this work, photojournalists are not likely to go out there and spend a bunch of time just exploring the culture and focusing on beauty or the perkiness or the little cultural aspects.

DC: Describe your process and the way in which you created your pictures. Were any challenges presented in collecting the images over a 10-year period?

MO: The one thing about Polaroid is that they do not make (the film) anymore. There are other kinds of instant films, but it is not Polaroid and has a different look. There are technical challenges in that, for a digital camera, typically you take many pictures because photography is a process and the person’s expression changes just a little bit from second to second and the light changes or you want to try vertical. With Polaroid, you can’t really, because the film is expensive and also scarce. You have to be more deliberate, and you want more or less one shot, so you got to make it work. I used to be able to buy it my first early years in the project and would often make two — give one to the person and keep one — but then I could not do that when they stopped making film. You want people to feel comfortable when you are making the photo because generally, when people are comfortable, the portrait is going to be better because people are revealing themselves, and that is what makes portraits interesting. You don’t want just a physical description — you want to ponder that person’s life and think, “Wow, look at the emotions this person is feeling.”

DC: What kinds of stories and experiences have you been able to collect throughout your work? Are there any that particularly stand out?

MO: If you look at a map of Colombia, you see that in the north, it borders Panama. There is a little bit of the isthmus that is still Columbia, and so I was in that part — very close to the Panama border — and it is forested. It is a town surrounded by jungle and water, and I had been there a few days and photographing. I always get up early because I like to take advantage of the beautiful light and I like to hear the birds. And so one morning, I saw a family of indigenous people, and you know they are indigenous because they are dressed differently than everyone else. They were very friendly, and I started taking some pictures. I always have my digital camera, too, and I was taking it with that and a few with my Polaroid.

This was in 2011, when they no longer made the film and it was very scarce, and the father of the family gestured to me and said, “You know, I would like one of those,” referring to the instant one, and how am I going to say no? So I said OK, and I took several pictures and then said, “Here, these are for you.” They were about to put them in their bag and I said, “No, no, wait,” and I grabbed a notebook I had and ripped out some pages and fashioned a little envelope out of it to protect them. I wrote on the back when and where I took them and wrote my name because I wanted them to understand these are something to treasure and they should be protected. And then they took off in a single-file (line) up along the river and into the jungle, and I like to think that they still have those pictures somewhere.

DC: What do you hope UC Berkeley students will take away from your book? How can students make a difference in and out of the institution?

MO: I would say that my experience in Colombia personally was very enriching for me over the period of 13 years I have been going there. I have learned about another culture, and I have grown a lot in myself, so I would encourage UC students to expand their horizons through experiences in other cultures because it allows you to learn more and allows for more empathy. And I think empathy is important in the world.

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photos courtesy of Matthew O’Brien 

Check out his Kickstarter campaign here.