All images by Matthew O’Brien. Used with permission.
When an award-winning photographer approaches you about a documentary project shot on Polaroid film for over 10 years and your audience has a strong analog love affair, you typically don’t turn it down.
San Francisco-based photographer Matthew O’Brien has been making photographs which explore social issues and celebrate humanity for over twenty years. His work has been exhibited in The California Museum of Photography, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Library of Congress, The Fries Museum (Netherlands) and the Museo de Arte Moderno de Cartagena. Among the awards he has received are a Fulbright Fellowship, a Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography Award, and a Community Heritage Grant from the California Council for the Humanities.
A project that he’s been working on for 10 years has to do with documenting and showing the world about the Colombia that nobody hears about. When we think about the country here in America, we think about coffee and Pablo Escobar, but there is so much more to Colombia than that. This project is called No Dar Papaya, and Matt is currently taking to Kickstarter to receive the funding for a book on the project.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.
Matt: I studied zoology in college, but a few years in to my studies I realized that I didn’t have the passion for science that the professors I admired had. I was more interested in creative and expressive pursuits, like photography and filmmaking. So I started taking photography classes at the art studio on the U.C. Berkeley campus where I learned the basics of developing black and white film and printing in a darkroom. I liked it a lot, and when you are enthusiastic about something, you keep doing it and you get better at it. Positive feedback was very encouraging, and I felt there was so much I wanted to explore and say about the world around me through photography, and I was inspired, and so I just kept doing it.
Phoblographer: What made you want to shoot Polaroids and Instant film?
Matt: I’ve done lots of documentary work, including Back to the Ranch, my study of ranching in the East Bay, across from San Francisco, and its demise due to urbanization, and Looking for Hope, an exploration of the public school experience and growing up in inner city Oakland. I found that with my documentary work, I would end up creating tons of images, more, even good ones, than I could ever use, and it would become unwieldy and daunting, and I wanted a different approach. Like a lot of artists, I didn’t want to keep doing the same thing. You look for different ways to communicate ideas.
I’d always loved the look of Polaroid. I love the softness and distinctive color palette. I won a Polaroid 690 camera, the one I used in Colombia, through a contest, so it was really sort of through happenstance that I started working with Polaroid 600 film. I would take a few pictures here and there with it, mostly portraits, and I loved them, but it hadn’t really occurred to me to do a project of broad scope with Polaroid until I was in Colombia.
With Polaroid, the images are not just different from digital and standard film photography, it requires you work differently too. You can’t shoot a lot because the film is expensive and now scarce, since it hasn’t been manufactured since 2008. When the film comes out of the camera, you have to pause to get the print, and when you’re photographing people it changes the dynamic. So you have to be more deliberate when shooting. You pretty much take just one shot, so you better make it good. The camera has a lot of limitations, and I enjoyed working with those limitations, because, like I said, I was looking for a new approach.
In my previous documentary work I would use various lenses which is one way to create a variety of images to convey many ideas, which I have always liked to do. But with the Polaroid camera, you have one lens. Also, it can be hard to compose with this camera and it is slow, so it doesn’t lend itself to action images. There are a few in the book, but not a lot. When you shoot with the flash, you lose that wonderful color pallete, so I didn’t shoot at night. So, I had to come up with new ways to create a body of work that would have a variety of images to try to convey the many ideas I was interested in conveying, but working within those limitations.
Phoblographer: How did you get into travel and documentary photography?
Matt: There are photographers who do elaborate staged work, studio work whose work I admire, but I was never drawn to that. I’ve always felt that photography at its best reveals something about humanity and the world as it is, so to speak, and I was much more interested in that approach. So I started close to home. My first big project was Back to the Ranch. My cousins are ranchers across the bay from San Francisco, and as a kid I spent time on the ranch and loved it.
When I started with photography, I was drawn to that subject because I loved being out there, I felt I had something to say, and I found it interesting on so many levels: I got to be out in nature, I was exploring a different culture with all these interesting relationships between humans and animals and the land, and as the project progressed, I was exploring a clash of cultures, as the ranching way of life was being pushed out of the area due to urbanization and loss of agricultural lands, and it was visually very rich.
Right out of college I had worked as an intern on a documentary film, and from that job I learned about grant writing. And so with this first major project I managed to get some grant support, and the work was exhibited and published a lot because, in addition to the photography, it was about other things that interested people and the media including agriculture, California history, and environmental issues.
Those successes encouraged me to continue. Shortly after that I was teaching in the Oakland public schools, and though I had not planned on shooting there, I just found myself compelled to because I was in an environment so rich– culturally and visually and with this wonderful energy of youth– that I just had to, and that is how Looking for Hope was born.
And in terms of travel photography, well you put your curiosity and the skills you acquire as a photographer during those projects to situations and projects abroad, and since I like being in among and learning from other cultures and have a natural curiosity, I find my sensibilities as a photographer are often really stimulated when I am in new cultural environments.
Phoblographer: When you went down to Colombia, what inspired you to create the project about documenting the people there?
Matt: I first went to Colombia to photograph a project that looked at the country through the prism of beauty contests, Royal Colombia. That was a project that I shot over 18 days in color film. But before going, I just had a sense that Polaroid would work well in Colombia. I made only a few Polaroid images that time, but I really liked them, and some of them appear in the book. I was invited back the following year to exhibit and teach, and I brought my Polaroid camera thinking that there could be a project there.
With most of my previous documentary work, there were specific themes and subjects I was exploring. In Colombia, with Polaroid, I wanted a broader, more expansive and diffuse approach, more like, “Let’s explore Colombia without parameters.” As a foreigner, you see things differently than people from that society. What could be unremarkable and quotidian for Colombians, could be really interesting or beautiful to me with my fresh eyes, and I think that accounts for my enthusiasm to do the work. I was in this culture new to me and fascinating, and I wanted to convey some of what I was experiencing. Another element of it too is that imagery from Colombia in the media tends to be about war, violence, and drug trafficking. That wasn’t what I was experiencing there, and it’s not what I am drawn to as a photographer or as a human being. I am drawn to beauty and creativity and humor, and I found lots of it in Colombia, and I was very interested in trying to convey that.
Phoblographer: As an American, what preparations did you take before going to Colombia? Obviously, we’re always told about how dangerous it is, but keeping that in mind, how pleasantly surprised were you at how different it is than what media portrays?
Matt: To be honest, I didn’t make a lot of preparations in terms of my security the first time I went. I remember saying to my worried mother to allay her fears, “I’m going to shoot beauty contests. How dangerous can it be?” But I remember my first night in Bogotá people warning me not to go out at night in an area I was staying because it was dangerous. That really struck me.
When I first went, in 2003, Colombia was considered much more dangerous than it is now. Very few people would travel there. Things have changed considerably, and now there are lots of tourists going to Colombia, including backpackers. But that has mostly to do with changing circumstances with the armed conflict. The rebel groups don’t hold the amount of territory they used to, they don’t do road blocks and kidnappings like they used to, so in that respect it is much safer. But there is lots of crime and insecurity in the country, especially in the cities. The title of the book No Dar Papaya is an expression unique to Colombia that means don’t show any vulnerabilities, don’t be an easy target. It reflects a mentality which reflects the country’s history– 51 years of war– and contemporary reality.
So, I guess you could say that I wasn’t pleasantly surprised at how safe the country is and how that differs from what the media portrays, but rather I was really fascinated that amidst these conditions of armed conflict, high crime, and difficult economic circumstances, there is all this joy, creativity, character, and beauty. And that is the focus of the work.
Phoblographer: When people shoot instant film, they often give their subject a copy. Does that mean you went through loads and loads of images?
Matt: In the early years of the project I gave away lots of Polaroids. You could buy the film in Colombia, and there was plenty of it around. I like to be able to share my photography, and lots of times people I was photographing didn’t have lots of means, and so I really enjoyed giving them photos. In the later years of the project, when they no longer manufactured the film, I had to put a stop to that practice or else I wouldn’t have been able to complete the project. So if I was in a place for any amount of time, I would have prints made from scans of the Polaroids at photo labs, and then bring people the prints.
But I remember in 2011 one time I was in a remote, forested area near the Panama border. One morning around sunrise there were several kids and teenagers from an indigenous community playing by the river. They were very friendly, and I took a bunch of photos, with my digital camera as well as a few with my Polaroid. The father of some of the kids was watching and he let me know that he would like some Polaroids. How could I say no? So I took portraits of the two families and also of a young woman with a baby. I wrote the date, place, and my name on the back of each Polaroid. Then I handed them to the young woman, and she was about to put them in a bag over her should that was full of stuff. I said, “Wait,” and then I ripped out a few sheets from my notebook and fashioned an envelope because I wanted them to know that they are things of value, and you gotta take care of them. The two families walked single file down the path along the river and then headed into the forest. I like to think that somewhere deep in the forest these families still have those photos and appreciate them.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you used and how you approached people to take their pictures. What was the process like and was anyone fearful of you?
Matt: The camera is a Polaroid 690 manufactured in the 90s. It collapses into a flat, long box, which both protects it and makes carrying it easier. It’s exposure control is very basic, a plastic dial with that is white on one side, black on the other that you turn in either direction. I would typically have it in a large fanny pack that I would usually wear in the front. In the pack I would have an extra box or two of film as well as an empty box to put the prints in. They can be damaged if left loose, and develop poorly if there is pressure on them during the process, so the little box gives them the space and protection they need.
I teach photography, and one thing I always try to impress upon my students is the importance of rapport in creating photographs of people. That rapport may come from having know the person a long time, maybe they are family or friends, or there may be an instant rapport. Since I did the project over eleven years, I was in many different situations when I was photographing. Some of the people in my photos I knew before I made the photographs, for example several of the portraits in the book are of friends and students of mine. Other times I was maybe having a conversation with a stranger I had met somewhere, and I would tell them about my project and would they like to be photographed? To make good, engaging portraits, you have to engage the person(s) who you are photographing– My portraits are collaborations.
Generally people are friendly, and lots of times people are flattered that you want to photograph them. You are honoring them because you are communicating to them that they are of such importance that you would like to put the effort into photographing them. Of course there are people who are shy and self-conscious and people for whatever reason who do not want to be photographed, and that’s okay. I always respect that.
Most of the time once I opened my mouth and people heard my accent, then they would realize I’m not a threat or up to no good, and then they could be at ease. And generally the more comfortable people are when being photographed, the better the portrait because they are more revealing of themselves.
Phoblographer: What’s your personal favorite image from the trips, and why?
Matt: I don’t have a favorite because there are so many, and I made them under so many diverse circumstances and even at different stages of my life, and so they have different meanings for me. But I must say I am very fond of the cover image. It’s of a beach scene with a boardwalk, palm trees, and a motorcycle. It evokes another era, and for me it is a beautiful, joyful image and it can affect people positively, and I like the idea of my work touching people in a positive way.