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Colombia defies stereotypes in Matt O’Brien’s photographs

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Matt O’Brien captures everyday life in Colombia — such as “School girls, Medellín, 2010” — in his photography show at the Colombian Consulate in San Francisco. (Courtesy Matt O’Brien, “No Dar Papaya”]

Long portrayed in the media and popular entertainment as a land of drug trafficking, violence and other woes, Colombia is a rich, human and gorgeous subject in Matthew O’Brien’s photographs.

“All of my work is about beauty, and that’s a wide, encompassing idea of beauty — in people, in landscape, in nature, in moments, in relationships,” O’Brien says, describing the vision behind “No Dar Papaya: Fotografias de Colombia 2003-2013,” a collection of images he shot in the South American nation while teaching and traveling there.

They are featured in a 190=page book (with an essay by O’Brien) and in an exhibition of 24 chromogenic prints opening May 4 at the Colombian Consulate in San Francisco. Images are also on view at the Berkeley Public Library central branch.

O’Brien, a locally based artist whose subjects have included Bay Area ranchers and inner-city Oakland schools — and whose work has appeared in the Library of Congress, the California Museum of Photography and the Museo de Arts Moderno in Cartagena –began photographing Colombia in 2003 when working on a project involving beauty pageants.

During subsequent visits, he taught classes, explored the country and developed a deep affection for its people and landscapes.

Initially, he used a 35mm camera. But he discovered that his Polaroid camera, with its “softness and distinctive color palette,” was a “great alternative” to the documentary approach he had been taking.

“It is pure photography that relies on strong composition and the vision of the photographer,” O’Brien says of the merits of the Polaroid in these days of digital manipulation.

Portraiture, nicely suited to the Polaroid’s soft focus, accounts for a substantial portion of “No Dar Papaya.”

The title — a Colombia-specific way of saying, “Show no vulnerabilities and present no easy target” — refers to the hardships Colombians have weathered.

O’Brien’s portraits and other images, shot throughout the geographically and ethnically diverse country, reflect how, despite the dark elements, people radiate joy and dignity.

In one such image, shot in 2010, two students at an all-girls high school in Medellin pose for O’Brien’s camera. O’Brien, who taught at three Colombian universities as a Fulbright Fellow, found his volunteer teaching work at this school the “most enriching and gratifying.”

An image of a grandfather and grandson at a small coffee farm, shot in Salento in 2010, exemplifies the artist’s focus on humanity.

Also striking is a 2011 portrait of an indigenous woman and her baby, shot in El Choco, a heavily forested region that, seen through O’Brien’s lens, looks otherworldly.

Landscape photographs include beaches filled with everyday Colombians and an occasional lucky dog. Animals are prevalent in the work of O’Brien, who studied zoology at UC Berkeley. He says he finds the animal-human relationships in Colombia, where people are more accepting of stray dogs than we are, fascinating.

Additional images feature fishermen, festivals, dancers, palm trees, agricultural workers, and a lulo orchard, rendered with a mix of documentary realism and visual poetry.

O’Brien, a recipient of a Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography Award and a Fulbright Fellowship, opens the consulate show with a reception on May 4, and is slated to sign books on July 19; he’ll also speak about the project May 25 at the San Francisco Public Library main branch.

Matthew O’Brien: No Dar Papaya
Where: Colombian Consulate, 595 Market St., No. 1190, S.F.
When: Opens May 4, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; closes Aug. 3
Admission: Free
Contact: (415) 495-7195, www.mattobrienphotography.com

Consulate: An opening reception is 6 to 8 p.m. May 4; a talk and book-signing is at 6 p.m. July 19.
S.F. Public Library: An artist’s talk is at 6:30 p.m. May 25 in the Latino/Hispanic room, 100 Larkin St.
Berkeley Public Library: Photos on view daily through May 21 on the fifth floor, 2090 Kittredge St.

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