Matt O’Brien first went to Colombia to photograph beauty contests. The San Francisco-based shooter subsequently fell in love with the country. Over eleven years, O’Brien traveled throughout Colombia with a Polaroid camera, always grateful to the Colombians who welcomed him to take their picture and helped him make his portrait of their nation.
Emily von Hoffmann: What was the reason for your first trip on this expansive project?
Matt O’Brien: I had Colombian friends in San Francisco and so I was curious about Colombia. I learned a bit about the culture through those friends. I didn’t want to go as a tourist because I wanted more of a participatory experience, and so I looked for a project that would be interesting to me, that I could do in a finite period of time, and that I might be able to interest magazines in.
Friends mentioned the national beauty contest, which is held every year in Cartagena while at the same time a local beauty contest happens. One contest has contestants from across the country, lots of money and corporate sponsorship, and is nationally televised, and the other is a local competition for women from poor neighborhoods, most of whom have dark skin.
The contests go on for eighteen days. It sounded really interesting because it seemed like you you could explore not only concepts of beauty, but also issues of class and race, and other cultural themes.
I shot that project with 35mm film, but I brought my Polaroid camera, because I had an intuition that Polaroid would go well with Colombia. I made a few Polaroid images that time, some of which are in the book. I had no idea that those would be the first images of a project that would include hundreds more and go on for eleven years.
I was invited back the following year to exhibit Royal Colombia, the beauty contest series, and to teach photography workshops at four different universities. I made a lot of Polaroids over those three months, and I wanted to continue because I felt I had just scratched the surface.
EvH: You mentioned that your mother cried before that trip — what was her impression of the country?
MO: Like most Americans back then, her image of Colombia, formed in large part by stories and images in the media, was of war, violence, guerrillas, kidnappings, drug trafficking. I don’t know exactly what she feared would happen to me, but she knew Colombia was dangerous.
EvH: A large part of the motivation for this project is your desire to create a different picture of Colombia than is usually presented, without eliminating any of its complexity or minimizing the conflict.
MO: I wasn’t particularly scared about Colombia before going the first time. I was going to photograph beauty contests — how dangerous could that be? But I do remember my first night in Bogotá receiving admonitions from various people not to go out at night because it was very dangerous to do so, and that really struck me.
Now, having had a lot more experience and a better understanding of Colombia, I am more aware of the dangers than when I first went. In the big cities, you have to be careful.
Horrible things do happen. People have told me about friends getting killed because they were on a list of union supporters. Friends have told me about people being quartered with chainsaws as part of campaigns of terror and repression by paramilitary forces.
The “false positive” scandal broke when I was in Colombia; that was a practice in the Colombian military of promising jobs to young men from poor neighborhoods in big cities, taking them out to conflict zones, dressing them in guerrilla uniforms, and killing them in order to increase the body count. You can’t believe some of the stuff that happens there. I guess what interested me was that amidst those harsh realities — 51 years of war, the horrific violence, a very classist society that affords most people very limited opportunities, and lots of crime in the big cities — there is lots of beauty, humanity, and a joie de vivre that is really marvelous.
EvH: Can you describe one or two of your favorite images from the collection, and the situation surrounding them?
MO: I am fond of a portrait I made of an indigenous woman holding a baby. I was in a small village in a forested area near Panama. I was up early for the sunrise, and there were a bunch of indigenous kids hanging out by the river. I went over and they were friendly and we made pictures, with my digital camera as well as my Polaroid.
The father appeared and was watching for a while. He let me know he would like to get some Polaroids of the families — there were two. This was 2011 when Polaroid film was no longer made. I had very little film left, but how could I say no? So I made portraits of the two families and a portrait of a young woman and her baby.
I wrote the date and place and my name on the back of each photo. Then I handed them to one of the women, and she was about to put them into a bag on her shoulder that had all kinds of stuff in it.
“Wait.” I ripped a few pages from a notebook I had and fashioned an envelope to put the pictures in. I handed her the envelopes and she put them in her bag, and then the families took off in single file on a path along the river and into the forest. I like to think that somewhere they still have those pictures and treasure them.
There’s also a picture of a boy standing in a field holding an object with wheels. This in a very remote and isolated area, at the northernmost point of South America in a region called La Guajira. As I was walking he came over some distance to see me and show me this object.
“What is that?” I asked the him.
“It’s my toy.” He had made it.
This is the middle of nowhere — no stores, no libraries, simple adobe homes quite far from each other and lots of goats in an arid landscape. He was proud of that toy that he made, and that pride comes through in the image.
EvH: The title, “No Dar Papaya” refers to a Colombian idiom — can you describe what it means, and what significance it took on for you?
MO: “No dar papaya” is an expression unique to Colombia (it makes no sense to other Spanish speakers, even in neighboring countries) that means show no vulnerabilities, don’t be an easy target, be careful.
For years I had a very boring working title, “De Colombia.” Then one day “No Dar Papaya” came to me and I knew it was perfect. The photos are about Colombia, they couldn’t have been created anywhere else. So I wanted a title that was very Colombian.
No dar papaya is not just an expression, it reflects a mentality that speaks to the historic and contemporary reality of Colombia — 51 years of war, tough economic situation for most, and high crime rates. They say it is the eleventh commandment, and the twelfth commandment is “Papaya puesta es papaya partida,” which means if somebody leaves a papaya you better grab it.
I took that expression to heart in Colombia, and I would generally move around very alert, walking differently than I normally do — chest out, tough guy mode — to project no fear and to communicate to would-be assailants “Don’t mess with me. It could go badly for you. Go find another, easier, target.” It worked very well, except for the night I got attacked by a guy with a knife.
That night, in downtown Medellín, I was walking with a friend, laughing and talking with her, paying attention to her and not my surroundings, and I felt somebody grabbing my shirt violently. I turn around and this guy’s got my shirt bunched up in one hand, arm outstretched, and in the other hand, cocked back, he has a knife, ready to plunge it into my chest. There were three other guys, all about nineteen. I asked them what they wanted, they said my cell phone.
“It’s yours.” And one of them reached into my pocket and got it. That guy was prepared to kill me for a phone that they could sell for twenty bucks.
EvH: Your past projects, including Back to the Ranch and Looking for Hope, center on distinct communities in California. You also teach photography in English and Spanish — how did your past work prepare you for this project?
MO: Those projects helped me to become a good photographer, and so I understand light, and composition, and how to interact with people and the importance of rapport, and no matter what kind of camera you are working with, that all matters. You also develop an aesthetic, which isn’t just about composition and technical stuff, it’s figuring out how to convey the often complex and subtle ideas you want to convey about people, places, activities, culture, or whatever. Your photos are a reflection of you and how you perceive the world, and you have to figure out how to translate your ideas into a two-dimensional photograph.
I’ve always felt that in a body of work you want to have a variety of images to convey the ideas you want to get across. With my documentary work, in addition to different kinds of subjects in the images, I would use different lenses, and with the Polaroid camera, you have one lens. That camera has been thought of mostly for shooting portraits, but a little bit into the project I started experimenting and I would shoot architecture, and later landscapes, and I loved the results.
The camera doesn’t lend itself to action images — there are only a few in the book — because it is hard to compose and it is slow, and with the flash you lose that wonderful color palette, so I didn’t shoot at night. But I think that the diversity of images does a good job of conveying Colombia, not with any pretense of an objective overview, but more like snippets, glimpses into the realities and possibilities of Colombia.
“Your photos are a reflection of you and how you perceive the world, and you have to figure out how to translate your ideas into a two-dimensional photograph.” — O’Brien.
Also, previous projects were focused on more concrete themes: ranching in the East Bay and its demise due to urbanization, or the public school experience and growing up in inner city Oakland. My concept for this project was always more expansive and diffuse — let’s explore Colombia with no set parameters — and Polaroid seemed to go well with that concept.
No Dar Papaya has a sort of abstract and impressionistic quality to it, which I think helps to put more emphasis on the emotional content and less on the descriptive. We are surrounded by digital images. These Polaroid images offer a different experience to the viewer.
A unifying theme in all of my work is beauty. If I am going to devote so much time to these projects, I want to create something beautiful. There’s plenty of unpleasant stuff in the world, but I want to create beauty because I think beauty makes life better for people. When I was doing Back to the Ranch, I remember, after I told somebody I was photographing ranching in the East Bay, he asked if it was an exposé into bad treatment of animals and other negative things this guy associated with ranching, and no, it wasn’t about that, it was a celebration of the culture and the land.
When some people learned that I was doing a project in the Oakland public schools, which have a reputation of being bad, they expected images of dilapidated facilities and kids portrayed as victims. But I saw beautiful kids and the irrepressible energy of youth, and that’s what comes through in the images. They are accompanied by texts written by students, some of which describe tough conditions, sad events, and bad schools, but the pictures themselves are of beauty, and I think that makes the work more powerful — these beautiful children and adolescents subjected to such unfairness.
I learned something important in the Oakland public schools that helped me very much in Colombia, but not with photography. Most of the kids acted tough. They weren’t all tough, but they had to act tough or else they would be taken advantage of. These were rough environments, and acting like that for lots of kids was necessary. That’s where I learned the importance of projecting toughness and no fear, which served me so well in Colombia. Of course it is much more convincing if you are in shape, and so that is another reason to stay in shape.
“They expected images of dilapidated facilities and kids portrayed as victims. But I saw beautiful kids and the irrepressible energy of youth.”
EvH: Who are some other people you met who most stand out in your memory?
MO: The guy who wrote the introduction to the book, Juan Alberto Gaviria Vélez is a curator from Medellín, and a friend. It was he who first invited me to exhibit and teach, and later suggested I apply for a Fulbright. I admire him because he understands the power of art to improve people’s lives and has done something about it. He founded a program, Desearte Paz, that brings art and artists to the youth of Medellín, that has had great success and touched the lives of many. I was very happy to be a volunteer instructor in that program.
It was through teaching in that program at a public high school in downtown Medellín when I met Sorelly, who was one of my students. I kept in touch with many of the students.
Last year, about a dozen of them came to the opening in Medellín. A few weeks later I got a message from Sorelly, whose family I knew, that essentially she and her sister had been brought under false pretenses to a remote city near the Venezuelan border for a new job. They figured out that they were going to be kidnapped and sold into prostitution, taken across the border, and that would be the end of them. Their family didn’t have the means to buy them flights, and a bus was out of the question as it was a conflict zone.
They managed to get to the airport, and shortly thereafter the bad guys showed up. The cops were corrupt and would not help the girls, the woman at the ticketing counter was protecting them, but the airport was gonna close after the last flight out, at 5:20, and they would be left to the bad guys. To make a long story short, with no time to spare, and lots of stress, I managed to buy them tickets remotely, and they were able to get on the flight minutes before the gate closed. Sorelly, a portrait of whom is in the book, sent me a message I will never forget, “Infinite thanks for saving our lives.”
EvH: Your use of a Polaroid camera and film give the portraits a signature nostalgia — can you discuss your decision to use these materials?
MO: I love the look of Polaroid, its softness and unusual color palette. A lot of previous work falls into the documentary category, and I wanted to take a different approach. With documentary projects, I would create tons of images, too many, even good images, to use, and it would be unwieldy. Polaroid forced me to work differently, more deliberately. The camera has a lot of limitations, and I liked working with those limitations. Exposure is tricky, it’s not good with high contrast or low light, and you generally take just one photo because the film is expensive or, in the later years, scarce because it was no longer manufactured, and also because, if you’re shooting people, once the picture pops out of the camera, it changes the dynamic.
I liked to show people the development process — most had never seen it. In the early years I would often take an additional photo to give away, but in later years I had to stop that because the film was so scarce. If I was in a place for long I would have copies made at photo labs and give the people I photographed those prints.
For exhibition, I create big, beautiful prints from scans of the Polaroids. They look great and they have a lot of presence. For the book, being a more intimate experience, I have conserved the original size and borders of the Polaroids. I experimented with different sizes, and no borders, and full bleeds, but then it wasn’t clear that you were looking at Polaroids, what with all the ways you can manipulate an image digitally, and people would wonder why the image looks funny. So I went for a simple design which puts the emphasis on the Polaroid images and not the design, and no distracting text. It’s a visual journey, a visual experience.
I’ve been speaking Spanish all of my adult life, and it was key to the work in Colombia, not only teaching, but also the photography itself, because you are interacting with people, creating rapport, and you need to get along and move around in the country. Without Spanish you couldn’t come to understand the culture so well and make friends, and the work would reflect that.
EvH: Can you share any plans for future projects that you’re excited about right now?
MO: What I am most excited about now is sharing No Dar Papaya with an American public, and I have lots of work ahead of me to make that happen.
I shot some video last time I was in Colombia, and I am looking forward to editing that and making a short film about arepas de chocolo, one of my favorite foods from Colombia. They’re like pancakes made from fresh corn, and the way they are made is interesting and visually rich — you have these markets where there are dozens of people scraping corn kernels off the cob by hand — and people’s ideas and opinions about them can be fun and show personality.