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No Dar Papaya: Colombia in Polaroids by Matthew James O'Brien
Cartagena, 2003. © Matthew O'Brien.

NEW YORK, NY.- In 2003, American photographer Matthew James O'Brien travelled to Colombia for the first time to photograph the country through the prism of its wildly popular local and national beauty pageants. He was invited to exhibit the resulting body of work, Royal Colombia, the following year at the Centro Colombo Americano in Medellín and at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Cartagena, and to teach at several institutions.

His fascination and affection for Colombia grew, and over the next eleven years he would return to Colombia regularly, including as a Fulbright Fellow, to continue his photographic exploration of the country. His travels would take him to tropical rain forests, snow-capped mountains, bucolic beaches, tranquil countryside villages, the tough inner city streets of Medellín, and upscale neighborhoods in Bogotá, among other places.

Created between 2003 and 2013 with a Polaroid camera and film, the photographs celebrate the beauty, diversity, and distinctive character of the people, culture, and landscape of Colombia. O'Brien chose to work with Polaroid film as he felt its softness and distinctive color palette was the right fit for his experience and vision of the country. Nearly 200 images from this remarkable body of work have been gathered together in the photographer's first monograph:

No Dar Papaya: Fotografías de Colombia 2003-2013 (Placer Press/Icono Editorial). The book was published in October 2014 in Colombia, and will be released in the United States on Colombian Independence Day, July 20, 2016.

No Dar Papaya includes an introduction by Juan Alberto Gaviria Vélez, Director, Paul Bardwell Contemporary Art Gallery, Centro Colombo Americano de Medellín, and an essay by O'Brien.

The book presents a unique vision of Colombia that is an alternative to the ubiquitous portrayals of the country commonly found in the international media, which focus on war, violence, illicit drug trafficking, desperation, and suffering. This kind of imagery, known as "pornomiseria" in Colombia, is not what interests O'Brien, who was captivated by the country's tremendous warmth and humanity and cultural and geographical richness. He admits that his is a subjective, emotional portrait of a country, rather than an overview, and he hopes it will reveal an unexpected Colombia that counters the negative image and unfair stereotypes that he has heard many of his Colombian subjects and friends lament about over the past decade.

In his essay in the book, O'Brien writes: "Amidst all these horrors, amidst all the harsh socio-economic and political realities of Colombia, there is so much beauty, humor, creativity, and humanity, and that is what my work is about. There's plenty of information in the media about the war and violence ... I wanted to offer a different look at Colombia, and this is it. I guess you could say the book is a kind of love letter to Colombia."

In his introduction to the book, Gaviria Vélez writes: "We are surprised by Matt O'Brien's work, by his capacity to illustrate in the landscape of each region he visited, its essential features from where the protagonists come, the humanity that shines in their faces, their kindness, their desire to be observed in a different way."

An exhibition of work from No Dar Papaya has been shown at Centro Colombo Americano, Manizales, Colombia (February 22 - May 25, 2015); Museo Bolivariano de Arte Contemporáneo, Santa Marta, Colombia (October 29, 2014 - January 10, 2015); ArtScience Museum, Singapore International Photography Festival (October 31 - December 28, 2014); Noorderlicht International Photofestival, Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, The Netherlands (August 31 - October 26, 2014); Centro Colombo Americano, Medellín, Colombia (September 5 - October 24, 2015); and Centro Colombo Americano, Pereira, Colombia (September 7 - October 9, 2015).

Matthew James O'Brien's photography explores humanity and the natural world. He recognizes that photography has the potential to influence individuals and to improve conditions for people and the planet, and he has been working toward that aim for two decades. As a visual storyteller, he specializes in creating compelling images, which go beyond the descriptive and are visually and emotionally moving.

His work has been exhibited and collected by various institutions, including the Library of Congress, the California Museum of Photography, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Museo de Arte Moderno in Cartagena, Colombia. Among the awards he has received are: a Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography Award, a Community Heritage Grant from the California Council for the Humanities, and a Fulbright Fellowship.

O'Brien's past projects include Back to the Ranch, an exploration of one of the oldest ranching communities in the United States, across the bay from San Francisco, and its demise due to urbanization, and Looking For Hope, a collaborative study (photos by him, texts by students) of growing up in the inner city and the public school experience in Oakland, where he taught for several years.

O'Brien now teaches and lectures on photography in English and Spanish, in the United States and internationally. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of California, Berkeley with a BA in Zoology.

"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, now in its 51st year of war... [Colombia] has a rigid class structure and the greatest disparity between haves and have-nots in Latin America ... Amid this, people live their lives with lots of creativity, joy, humanity and beauty, and that is what interests me." -- Matthew James O'Brien

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