The PhotoBook Journal

December 17, 2017

Matthew James O’Brien – No dar papaya

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Photographer:  Matthew James O’Brien (born in San Mateo, California; resides in San Francisco, California)

Publishers:  Icono Editorial, Bogota, Colombia and Placer Press, San Francisco, California; © 2014; introduced in the United States in 2016

Essays:  Juan Alberto Gaviria Vélez; Matthew James O’Brien

Text:  English and Spanish

Hard cover, sewn binding, four-color printing; 129 numbered pages; 190 photographs with time and location identification and map; 9.5×12 inches; printed and bound in Spain by Artes Gráficas Palermo, Madrid

Notes:  The Spanish phrase “No dar papaya” has a special meaning in Colombia, something like “Don’t be an easy target.” In a country that has seen much strife and turmoil and has only slowly come to a more reasonable overall existence, this is good advice, as the photographer Matthew O’Brien describes in his essay “Expect the Unexpected,” based on his own experiences in that country. As the gallery owner Juan Alberto Gaviria Vélez states in the introduction, the people of Colombia have a collective desire to live in peace one day. O’Brien’s overall approach focuses on the positive; this volume can be considered a love affair with Colombia’s people, who in general seem very welcoming and approachable.

O’Brien visited Colombia a number of times, as a student, photographer, and as a teacher of photography, during the years 2003-2013. He decided that the softer, somewhat dreamy look of vintage color Polaroid was the ideal vehicle for presenting a more optimistic view of a people striving for a better future. At one time, when there still was a more plentiful and affordable supply of these materials (manufacture of this specific Polaroid material ceased in 2008), he could also take a second shot and give it to his subjects on location as a memento. In any case, this medium requires a more considered approach.

The book presents many contrasts: country and desert scenes and seashore settings, cityscapes and many activities observed in all these varied locations, as the country itself is full of variety and contrasts – cities vs. countryside, jungles and deserts, agriculture and fishing, religion, the sensuous vs. the intellectual, the varieties of ethnic groups. The generously laid out and juxtaposed images are not always obvious as to their meaning; our interpretations can be given free reign, and perhaps that is a good thing, up to a point. On the other hand, I found O’Brien’s stories and anecdotes also very enlightening, especially regarding his personal experiences with the individuals depicted and referenced, and I would have liked even more of those personal and cultural notes to go with the images presented. The author is an excellent storyteller, both visually and verbally, and should not shy away from expanding the verbal explanations in a second edition or in future projects; it would be nice to have such further cultural enrichment to go with his images. The appendix contains a map of Colombia, as well as a complete list of the location and year each image was taken. One is reminded of the work of August Sander; this is a kind of “Colombians of the 21st Century” project, with the people portrayed facing the camera without pretense. The shots are well composed and pleasant to survey. The chronological presentation of images gives the book the feel of a family album, and perhaps that was the intent for this supportive portrayal of the people O’Brien encountered.

This volume is a refreshing and positive new view of a country about which we have received many decades of bad reports, and it allows us glimpses of all the good people who live there and are longing for a better future.

Gerhard Clausing

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