Cuba from the inside: Lens on a culture

International photographer Ernesto Bazan brings his intimate exposures of Cuban life to Portland

All photographs copyright Ernesto Bazan

Some photographers seem to slip away, making themselves disappear so their subjects will forget they’re there. Not Ernesto Bazan. “I’m not interested in being invisible,” he says. “Quite the contrary, I like to be visible and partake in some moments of their life.”

Bazan, who’s known internationally for his evocations of life in modern Cuba, has walked that walk. Born and raised in Sicily, he moved to New York to pursue his career and eventually landed in Cuba, where he stayed for fourteen years and became a part of the culture. He married a Cuban woman and began a family on the island (they now live in Veracruz, Mexico). He’s published two books of his Cuban photos and is working on a third. Bazan will be in Portland this week for a pair of events. He’ll give a lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15, in the Miller Room of the Portland Art Museum, sponsored by the museum’s Photography Council. Then, on Friday and Saturday, he’ll offer an all-day workshop at Newspace Center for Photography.

Both should be provocative and insightful. As Portland photographer and publisher Jim Leisy, who helped arrange his appearances here, notes, Bazan’s evocations of Cuban life go far deeper than the standard travelogue snaps of old American cars on old Havana streets.

Oregon ArtsWatch interviewed Bazan via email.

OREGON ARTSWATCH: Your book “Bazan Cuba” was named best photography book of the year at the New York Photo Festival, and you’re well known for documentary and photojournalistic images. Do you think of yourself as an artist, or a journalist, or both?

ERNESTO BAZAN: While working as a professional photographer for over two decades, I’ve always tried to do personal work to feed my soul. Being a photographer has been more than a profession: a true mission in my life thanks to the mystical dream I had when I was seventeen. Since the very first moment I became a photographer a strong spiritual energy has pervaded both my personal and professional life. In answer to your question, I only like to say that I’m a photographer, a poet of daily life, far from documentary and photojournalism. The more I do it the more it becomes more evident.

OAW: You spent 14 years living and working in Cuba, part of them during the “Special Period” of the 1990s, when the country was thrown into a deep depression after the Soviet Union fell apart and cut off its economic support. And you married a Cuban woman and had kids there. So even if you began as an outsider you weren’t really a visitor to Cuba: You became part it. Did Cuba change the way you took pictures? Did it change the way you thought about life?

EB: My Cuban experience has changed my life in so many different ways. Finding my life’s companion, Sissy, becoming a father of my beloved twin boys, Pietro and Stefano, are probably the two most important things of a string of changes. When Sissy got pregnant, it became clear that the time had come for me to move to Cuba and so I did. I was no longer an outsider, a foreign photographer parachuting himself in and out of the island: I started living, seeing and photographing from the inside. I steeped myself into my Cuban life. The worked turned more intimate. I was able to break the invisible glass between my subjects and I. In Cuba, I also understood that in my entire professional career I had been unconsciously looking for my happy Sicilian childhood. Almost by magic I had found it there. My entire vision of life was deeply affected by this encounter.

OAW: Were there aspects of life in Cuba that it was difficult to shoot because of government restrictions?

EB: Ignorance and suspicion can always create hurdles in your work. I did have a few problems, but I was also given an unprecedented access by the government to many spheres of Cuban life such as sport, education, the sugar industry and the military. All of that reinforces my idea that I was meant to be there to do my work, which has both Cuban and universal qualities simply because it deals with humanity.

OAW: After 14 years you left Cuba rather abruptly. What happened?

EB: On January 6th, 2006, I was summoned to a police station a few blocks from my house and to my great surprise and disbelief, I was told that I could no longer teach my photographic workshops. Since I consider my teaching and the creation of my courses one of the best thing that I’ve done in my life, I realized that the time had come for me to abandon the island with my family. It was a harrowing change, but I knew that I couldn’t compromise my artistic and personal freedom.

OAW: What do you think the outside world, and the United States in particular, should know about Cuba and Cubans?

EB: I find most Cubans sensitive, proud, dignified and generous people.  I dream of the day when there will not be any more misunderstandings, suspicions and restrictions between the two countries.

OAW: It’s been almost 60 years since the beginnings of the revolution, and more than a half-century since the Bay of Pigs. Is it finally time for the United States to normalize political and economic relations with Cuba? And politically, what would it take to do that?

EB: It’s a very complex issue. The bottom line is that freedom has to be restored.

OAW: When you’re photographing people, what sort of relationship do you like to establish with them?

EB: I like to get close to some of my subjects. It’s not easy when you don’t have much time. This is why I try to return to the same places over and over again.  I’m not interested in being invisible. Quite the contrary. I like to be visible and partake in some moments of their life. With my images I try to convey at the same time how I feel about them and how they feel about their life.

OAW: You and your family now live in Veracruz, Mexico. Why did you pick there, and has the move changed the way you work?

EB: Because of my good student and friend Juan de la Cruz. When I was desperately looking for a place to take my family, he suggested I give Veracruz a chance. I’m so happy I did. Mexico welcomed us with open arms; it has been home and it feels so good to live here.

OAW: Do you have a new project you’re working on?

EB: For the last year, I’ve been working with many of my students on editing and sequencing what has come to be known as the last body of work of this unimaginable and unexpected Cuban trilogy. In the last five years of my life on the island, I was able to take pictures with three different cameras. I had one loaded with black and white film, color in another one and then I was also shooting in black and white with a panoramic camera. After self-publishing “Bazan Cuba” and “Al Campo” we hope to be able to launch “ISLA” in 2014. I can only add that it shows my Cuban life with another sensibility. The camera format forced me to see in a different way. It’s difficult to explain with words, but this is the way it is. My students, as always, are doing a great job in helping me tremendously in refining and narrowing down these panoramic images for the book to come. I like to say that I feel that this project is the most tender of the three and it shows my profound love for the Cuban people.

OAW: Can you tell us a bit about what to expect from your lecture at the art museum and your workshop at Newspace?

EB: I’m very honored to be able to share my Cuban experience with the audience at the art museum in Portland. It comes as no surprise that it has been made possible thanks to one of my students: Baron Barnett and his friend Jim Leisy. I’ll talk about some of the most significant aspects of my life as a photographer, particularly my unique relation with my students and how this relation has profoundly affected my way of working. I’ll also share the two audiovisuals specifically created to help me convey the experience of each book. Needless to say, both videos were directed by one of my students: Juan de la Cruz.

At NewSpace, I’ll share with my new students what I think is important to have in an image. I’ll try to help them get better at editing their own work, which is every photographer’s Achilles heel.


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