Fifty-one years of conflict has painted a tragic portrait of Colombia. “Thousands have been killed and displaced from their homes. There is lots of crime in the cities, a rigid class structure, and the greatest disparity between haves and have-nots in Latin America, ” photographer Matthew O’Brien wrote in a statement to In Sight. “Amid these rough realities there is lots of beauty, diversity, and joie de vivre, and that is what I am drawn to. ”
O’Brien’s project “No Dar Papaya” shows what he calls an “alternative vision” of Colombia. “Images of war, violence, drug trafficking, and related problems,” O’Brien wrote, “are so often featured in the media. …As a photographer, I’m not drawn to horror and war and misery. I am drawn to beauty, and I encountered so much of it in Colombia, and so that is what my work is about. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of problems in Colombia– there are, and horrible things happen there. But there’s a lot more than that, though you wouldn’t know it from some of the reporting from Colombia. ”
Over 11 years, O’Brien traveled with a Polaroid camera in hand all over Colombia. According to O’Brien, the name of the project “No Dar Papaya” is a Colombian expression that means show no vulnerabilities, don’t present an easy target. “I started with the idea of, ‘Let’s explore Colombia– no parameters,'” O’Brien wrote to In Sight, “and the concept only arose and only made sense to me because of the medium, Polaroid.” O’Brien wrote, “It has an impressionistic quality to it that puts more emphasis on the emotional content of the image and less on the descriptive.”
O’Brien, who is based in San Fransisco, said much of that work has to do with being an outsider, able to look at the country through fresh eyes. “When I first started going to Colombia, there weren’t nearly the amount of foreigners there are now. It was perceived of as much more dangerous then, and people didn’t go. So in some situations I was a total novelty,” he said. “When people hear my accent, it’s clear I’m not Colombian and I’m probably not a thief, and so people can let their guard down, and I find that usually people are friendly.”
When asked how “No Dar Papaya” was received in Colombia, O’Brien said that it received a positive reaction. “I can’t tell you how many times I have heard Colombians complain about the negative image of Colombia, how they are subjected to unfair stereotypes.” he said.
Currently, O’Brien is raising funds through Kickstarter to print the work in book form and bring it to a larger audience. “So I think yes, it is good for people outside of Colombia to see this work. Maybe it will allow them to conceive of the country and its people differently. … It’s a visual journey through a fascinating and beautiful country with elements that transcend Colombia and speak to being human on this planet. It’s an exploration and celebration of Colombia, but it’s a celebration of humanity too.”
You can read more about project and see more pictures on his Kickstarter page.