That meant traveling to Colombia’s Choco province in 2011, a tropical region home to right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerilla groups who’ve taken civilian lives
. Despite the violent history of this place, it was the radiant morning light and a cluster of two indigenous families gathered by the mouth of a river that caught O’Brien’s attention.
When the Polaroid popped out of the camera, he says, one of the fathers asked to keep a few pictures. The defunct Polaroid film was a scarcity and there was nowhere to make a reproduction in the middle of the jungle (as he’d typically do) but, as O’Brien recalls, “how could I say no to this guy?”
After handing over a few pictures he’d delicately wrapped in notebook paper, he says, he watched the two families walk off, single file, along a path along the river and into the forest. “I like to think that they still have those photos,” he says, “and they mean something to them.”
This particular incident is not unique: Generally, O’Brien considers his portrait-making to be a collaborative process. “Photography gives you a reason to have these interesting, meaningful experiences,” he says. “You’re learning from them, but ideally, it’s a mutual beneficial exchange.”