Berkeley photographer Matthew O’Brien: A focus on beauty

Manizales, 2010. Photo: Matthew O'Brian
Manizales, 2010. Photo: Matthew O’Brien

Berkeley photographer Matthew O’Brien says all of his work is about beauty — a wide, encompassing idea of beauty, “in people, in landscape, in nature, in moments, in relationships.” O’Brien has a new exhibition, No Dar Papaya, currently showing at the central Berkeley Public Library. The show is a photographic exploration of Colombia that O’Brien created over 11 years (2003-2013), including a stint as a Fulbright Fellow, using Polaroid camera and film. On Monday, April 24 at 6 p.m. O’Brien will give an artist’s talk and sign books at the library.

O’Brien’s previous projects include Back to the Ranch, which explored ranching in the East Bay and its demise due to urbanization, and Looking for Hope, a collaborative project that looked at the public school experience and growing up in Oakland.

O’Brien studied zoology at UC Berkeley, but during the summers would take photography classes and learned to develop film and print in a darkroom. Eventually his passion for photography won over his interest in pure science. He was awarded a President’s Undergraduate Fellowship to go to Costa Rica to study and photograph a species of river otter (Lutra longicaudus) about which little was known, and his photography took off from there. Berkeleyside asked him about his work and inspirations.

As a photographer you have covered disparate subjects. How do you choose what to photograph and what techniques to use?


When I look back at my work and the various projects I have done, I guess I would say that what motivates me is an appreciation for the subject and a desire to deepen my understanding. Photography is a process of exploration. Also, I am inspired by beauty. I believe beauty makes life better. You can be in a sad mood, and you walk by a garden with beautiful flowers, it can make you feel better. That won’t happen walking by a bunch of garbage.

It’s my personality to find beauty in things, and so that is reflected in my work. The kind of work I do takes an extraordinary amount of time and effort. Many of these projects I’ve done over years. So, if I’m going to put all that time into something, I want to create something that’s affirming and beautiful, both as an object — a beautiful photographic print or book — and also the ideas behind it: celebrating an individual, a way of life, a culture, humanity. I’m interested in adding beauty to the world. Life has enough harshness to it already. Some artists create depressing work — that’s never been my thing.

What led you to the No Dar Papaya series now on view at the main branch of the Berkeley Library? What was your motivation and approach to doing it?

I first traveled to Colombia in 2003. I had friends from Colombia in the Bay Area, and because of those friendships I became interested in Colombia, and I knew there was more to it than the impressions one got from the media, which at the time were full of stories of war, kidnappings, drug trafficking, and other problems.

I didn’t want to go just as a tourist — and there wasn’t much tourism in Colombia in those days due to the violence and war — because I wanted a more participatory experience, so I looked for a way I could work while there. I looked for something that would interest me as a photographer and that I might be able to pitch to magazines, and that I could do in a finite period.


Colombian friends mentioned the National Beauty Contest, and that it was a big deal there. So I looked into it and discovered that the national contest was the biggest annual media event in Colombia that lasted more than two weeks and attracted the wealthy and famous, as well as the interest of the general public, and that concurrently in the same city, Cartagena, another beauty contest takes place, the Popular Beauty Pageant.

The contestants are young women from poor neighborhoods of Cartagena, almost all of whom have dark skin. That made it interesting to me because, in addition to concepts of beauty, I could explore ideas of race and class and other aspects of the society. Plus, it seemed like it could be a lot of fun. I had never been to a beauty contest before and hadn’t had much interest in them.

Why did you decide to shoot in Polaroids?

I shot that project with 35mm color film, but I brought my Polaroid camera with me because I had a sense that I would want to shoot in Colombia with Polaroid. I made a few images that year with my Polaroid, mostly portraits of beauty queens and others in Cartagena, some of which are in the book.

By the time I completed Royal Colombia (Colombia through the prism of beauty contests), I had done lots of documentary photography. I found that for a given project I would create lots of images, more than I could deal with (even good ones), and the projects would become unwieldy, and I got tired of that. I was interested in new challenges and looking for a new way to work, a new way to express my ideas. Because for me, the photographs I create are in one way or another a response to the world around me. Usually it’s me trying to convey beauty…


Polaroid offered a great alternative. I’d always loved the look of Polaroids. I love the softness and distinctive color pallet. Up until the project in Colombia, I would just make portraits of friends and family with my Polaroid camera.

In Colombia, after that first trip there, I started to think that I could make more Polaroid images of Colombia, and that instead of exploring a given topic intensely and making tons of images, I could do a more expansive project, a project that would not be so “exact” as documentary photography is often perceived to be, and more abstract, more impressionistic, which Polaroid lends itself to. I was invited back the following year to exhibit Royal Colombia and to teach photography in several universities, and I brought my Polaroid. Several more trips followed, and I found myself really enthusiastic about the work, and then in 2010 I was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to continue work on the project.

The series offers a vision of Colombia. It doesn’t pretend to be an objective or definitive view (which of course is impossible anyway), but with Polaroid I think it is clearer that that is the case. The images put less emphasis on the descriptive and more on the emotional content, and that’s what really interests me.

One thing I love about Polaroid is that, in this day and age when so much photography is about post-processing and digital manipulation, with Polaroid it’s not about manipulation and filters and working at a computer. It is pure photography that relies on strong composition and the vision of the photographer.

What were your impressions of Colombia?

When I first travelled to Colombia in 2003 the perception of Colombia was very different than it is now. The reputation was one of crime, war, violence and drug trafficking. My mother was very worried that I was going and cried at the airport when my parents dropped me off because she feared she might not see me again. Americans in general responded with amazement when I said I was going to, or had been in, Colombia. It has changed considerably, and now there is lots of tourism, and Colombia is now on the South American backpacker circuit.

A lot of the photography from Colombia over the years created by foreigners is about war, violence, drug trafficking, and related horrors. It is so common that in Colombia there is a term for that kind of photography, pornomiseria. Despite what PR campaigns would have you believe, there’s still lots of horrible stuff going on in Colombia, and there was during the years I was creating No Dar Papaya. But as a human being and as a photographer I am not drawn to violence and misery. I am drawn to beauty, and I seem to be able to find beauty in all kinds of situations.

The title, No Dar Papaya, is a common expression unique to Colombia which means show no vulnerabilities and present no easy target. It speaks to the reality of life in Colombia, having endured over 50 years of war. Tens of thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes. Unspeakable cruelties continue to happen. It has a rigid class structure and the greatest disparity between haves and have-nots in Latin America. There’s lots of crime in the cities. Amid all this people live their lives with lots of creativity, joy, and humanity, and that is what No Dar Papaya is about — the beauty, diversity, and distinctive character of Colombia.

Tell us more about the No Dar Papaya book.

It was published to a positive response in Colombia in 2014, and after a long road, it is finally being launched in the U.S. The photographs are sequenced more or less in chronological order, the idea being that the reader goes on this journey of exploration and discovery with me.

We conserved the original size of the Polaroids and the borders, like a photo album. A book is a more intimate experience than an exhibition, and the reader has the time to ponder the photos.

There are no captions. Since the book is bilingual, that would mean that each caption would have to be in two languages — ouch. And then, what would the captions say—“People reclining on a beach in San Andrés”? In so many cases they would just be stating the obvious, and when what is happening in the image isn’t obvious, it’s okay for people to wonder about what they are looking at. That’s the experience one often has in real life, especially in a foreign culture.

I’ve been to exhibitions where the photographs themselves are unremarkable, but because they depict somebody or some event that is/was significant, and it is explained in an accompanying text, I guess you’re supposed to think more of the photo. But you wouldn’t know it if it weren’t for the label, and it doesn’t make the photo any better. I believe the photographs themselves have to be compelling and stand on their own. Captions are a convention of photojournalism and not appropriate for the experience I am trying to create for the reader.

There’s also an introduction by Juan Alberto Gaviria Vélez, a curator from Medellín, and an essay by me, so those also provide context for the photographs. If people want more information about Colombia, they can get it in lots of other places, but No Dar Papaya offers a unique record of Colombia, a unique take on the country.

What’s next for you as a photographer?

I spent half of last year in Thailand and Burma and had this special opportunity to raft 280 kilometers of the Salween River that had never been rafted before. It’s one of only two rivers that has its origins in the Tibetan Plateau that is wild, without dams. I photographed communities along the river and am very interested in continuing that work, collaborating with NGO’s who oppose the several proposed dams that would destroy communities along the river. I also made a film there, For Our People, and am very interested in making more films.