From Bazan Cuba, Ernesto Bazan
I can say without any doubt that teaching my own workshops has been one of the best things that I’ve done in my life. Everyday it becomes clearer that it’s a mission. I teach workshops with only one student or with many. It makes no difference: I simply know that I have to do so. I need to help my students to get better, to understand more profoundly what it takes to make an image that can convey the essence of a moment, of a feeling, of an emotion. Oftentimes, being a good photographer doesn’t necessarily translate at all—you can be a good teacher or vice versa. It’s another precious gift that I’ve been given.
The main goal of my teaching is to make my students aware of what a good picture is—and how hard is to take one. I continue to be humbled by some of the images that my students take. With time I’ve also come to the realization that I can only give myself 20 percent of the credit on how I manage to inspire my students to take better pictures. I give each one of them 50 to 60 percent of the credit. The remaining 20 to 30 percent definitely goes to this pervasive energy present in each of my workshops that protects us from any harm, that guides and provides us with simple and yet very moving and special situations from which, at times, my students and I manage to get some interesting pictures. The more I do it, the more it becomes clearer in an uncanny way.
Thanks to the workshops, I’ve created this extended family that has played a paramount role in the way I make a living, in the way I shoot, in the way I make books. For the last eleven years of my life, I’ve been given the privilege to help my students take better pictures and, at the same time, I’ve had the unique opportunity to take only my own images. It’s priceless! Even this interview is happening because of that.
I’d say that creating the workshops has been a turning point, both in my life as a photographer and as a man.
MG: You left behind life on one island, Sicily, to discover your life on another island, Cuba—one strong-armed by the Mafia and the other by the Communist Party. You described Sicily as apathetic. How did you find Cuba in contrast?
EB: What I loved about Cuba was to feel this incredible energy that people had in spite of the difficult circumstances: their acceptance of life as it came, always making do with the scant resources they had. It was the greatest lesson I learned there.
At the same time I felt that behind the façade, there was lots of sadness and suffering, both physical and mental. In Cuba, I simply managed to see life in its myriad facets—with more intensity.
MG: In your 2009 NPR interview you mention having been granted unprecedented access to the Cuban military.
Yes. I believe I’m the only foreign photographer who has been given this access to the secretive and elusive Cuban army. After working from 1992 on my own, I felt the need to ask for the government’s help in order to access places that were off-limits: sugar mills, sports facilities, schools, the military. . . . In 1998, I had become a foreign correspondent in Cuba, so I wrote a simple letter to Fidel Castro requesting to be granted access to all these places. To my great surprise, a few days later I received a reply asking me when and how I wanted to start.
To me it is another irrefutable proof that I was meant to do my Cuban work as part of my destiny. I was able to spend a week with the army, and I was even allowed to participate in war games. A few images were selected to be part of Bazan Cuba.
MG: The subjects in Bazan Cuba seem to have had the life literally sucked out from them, as though they are hanging on through sheer will. Was this your feeling living among the Cubans every day?
EB: With some of the images from Bazan Cuba I wanted to express this sense of endless wait, of despair that I saw painted on people’s eyes, in their postures, in the way they went about their daily life facing endless lines, scarcity of food, and lack of hope and freedom.
In my perambulation on the street, I was constantly confronted with this reality. Luckily, I also stumbled upon moments of joy, of tenderness. Some of these images, including some of my own family and friends, tend to counterbalance the sadness of life in Cuba. By working from within, away from the stereotypes that many foreign photographers visiting the island fall into unavoidably, I tried to show the large spectrum of antithetic and complex raw emotions that surrounded my life there. You need to page through the book slowly and carefully to understand that.
In the end, the prevailing feeling is the one that you described: of Cubans hanging on to the very thin lace of their life. I wanted this to be the case because I felt that living on $20 a month or less, without freedom and with no expectations for imminent political change, doesn’t provide too much hope. Although there were few rays of hope here and there.
MG: It would seem that you shot Bazan Cuba and Al Campo quite differently, that your relationships with the famers in Al Campo were ongoing (indeed, you shot for five years in the countryside), whereas your relationships with your subjects in Bazan Cuba were more fleeting.
EB: In Bazan Cuba I started the project by photographing people unknown to me as I was wondering in my peripatetic strolls. In Havana, all I did was get lost in the city, wearing out many pairs of shoes without a precise agenda of what to do. This is my favorite way of working. I’m a flaneur at heart and know no other way of getting to know a place.
From 1992 to 1997, I was traveling to Cuba. In 1998, when Sissy became pregnant, I moved to Cuba. I started living and experiencing Cuba from the inside—I was no longer a foreign photographer parachuting in and out of the island, as Vicki Goldberg pointed out in her afterword in my black-and-white book. Thus, I was able to break the invisible glass between my subjects and me. The work turned more intimate by my photographing people I knew, including my own family and my farmer friends. Bazan Cuba combines these two approaches.
Another important aspect of my way of shooting that needs to be emphasized is that when I got to Cuba, I started using much more of what I like to call my “internal eye,” the one connected to my heart and soul. I can only explain that by saying that the connection with the place was so strong—much stronger than any other place I had photographed before. By using more my internal eye, I was in turn able to capture the essence of life on the island.
Al Campo is the result of what I’ve come to describe as a ritual. Photography became part of my life: I was now living my life first and then I was taking pictures, unlike my first five years. The Cuban farmland opened up new windows of opportunity for my work. From 2001 to 2005, I spent long periods of time with the farmers. I made new friends while wandering in this unique landscape. I returned regularly to visit my friends Fidel, Inesita, Miguel, Ofelio, and their families. Our interactions allowed me the opportunity to experience and photograph intimate rituals: working in the fields, sharing meals, smoking sugar-tasting cigars rolled before my eyes by Fidel’s skillful hands, sipping sweet rum shots as we conversed about the sowing and the harvesting of crops and about our families and our existence. My way of shooting changed. Taking pictures became almost part of this ritual—it was no longer the main priority—just a component of this rich exchange among human beings.
MG: Your work in Al Campo is relatively more restive and exhibits fewer of the visual acrobatics of Bazan Cuba. Was this a conscious choice? What do you think most influences your shooting style? Or is it your edit of your work that changes?
EB: In Al Campo, I photographed some of the places and people I felt closer to. I’d feel much more connected in the countryside, and daily life there was not as harsh as in the cities for the ability of farmers to be able to grow some of their food, raise animals, and eat them. In these lands my childhood memories of the Sicilian countryside gently overlapped with this ancestral, beautiful way of living.
I was also starting to look around in a different way. I was particularly drawn to still life and landscape. Knowing that I had color film inside the camera made me see life under a new light, and I reacted in quite a different way. I applied another sensibility with color. There are some similarities between the two bodies of work, but they are also quite distinct, and for me this is what counts the most.
MG: The people in Al Campo seem caught in a middle ground between life and death that is as fragile as the artificial flowers you captured in your still lifes.
EB: I’d say that, in general, life everywhere seems to be caught in this middle ground. I think the Cuban countryside is no exception.
MG: Talk about some of the juxtapositions in Al Campo. Early on we see a woman veiled by a delicate lace curtain, a child beside her, while on the next page appears a disemboweled pig, its guts spilling. The edits are quite dramatic.
I consider editing one of the most challenging aspects of the creative process of picture taking. They go hand in hand. I compare editing a book to composing a music score. I like the tempos in my books to stay even and then suddenly change dramatically. That’s the way life is. Everything seems normal, pleasant, and quiet, and out of the blue an abrupt change comes into play.
From Al Campo, Ernesto Bazan
MG: What is your favorite image in Al Campo?
EB: I think it’s the one of the boots with red flowers strewn around. I perfectly remember seeing it because I had color film in my camera. It’s a very simple moment. but it encapsulated so much beauty, so much poetry.
My life in Cuba taught me a great lesson: to look around me in a more-profound way. Now, I’ve been applying this new sensibility to my work in black-and-white, as well.
MG: Both Bazan Cuba and Al Campo begin and end with a clearly personal footnote: Bazan Cuba with photos of Sissy and your sons, and Al Campo with the bed you slept in in the countryside. Why?
EB: One of the things that interests me the most is that my images convey a sense of intimacy. This is particularly evident in my Cuban work, where I was able to combine photographing strangers on the street with more-personal photographs of my family and farmers friends. By placing some of these images at the very beginning of a book, I’m subliminally preparing the viewer for what they are about to see leafing page after page.
MG: What was it like shooting in Cuba practically? Where did you get your film stock? Were you ever without it? And how did you reconcile what must have been your access over the average Cuban photographer’s lack of access to materials?
EB: I had the freedom to travel frequently back and forth to the U.S., where I’d get my film. I’d also get photo materials for some of the Cuban photographers who asked me to help them. In Cuba there isn’t a photo store, just minilabs, where I’d have most of my color negative processed. I liked to take the chance of having my color film processed in situ. Sometimes some rolls were totally ruined, some were scratched, but the privilege of seeing right away what I was doing in color made it definitely worth it.
MG: You were asked to leave Cuba after 14 years of shooting. One imagines that is like asking a fish to leave water. How did the crisis affect you creatively? You seem not to have missed a beat. And, now, looking back, what are your feelings toward that moment?
EB: It was probably one of the saddest moments in my life. Ironically, it was sparked by my workshops. One day I was summoned to a police station and was told that I could no longer teach my workshops. I could take pictures but not teach. Since I was born a free man, I couldn’t accept that someone would tell me what to do with my life. I talked it over with Sissy, and she agreed that the time to leave the island had come. I almost completely stopped taking pictures. I felt that a great injustice was being committed.
I can now say that in the same way that it was meant for me to live such an unforgettable experience in Cuba, it was also meant for me to leave the island, to give my wife and children the possibility to be free and to choose what to do with their life. It was a blessing in disguise in so many ways, although I still long for that Cuban countryside and my friends there.
As I’ve said before, if in my lifetime Cuba will finally become a free country, we will return there right away. Otherwise, I would feel content if my children will be bestowed the privilege to see a free Cuba.
MG: What photographers have influenced your work? You often reference Robert Frank. I see his thumbprint in Bazan Cuba’s cover image.
EB: Yes, Robert Frank is my mentor for simple and yet profound reasons: In his photographs he’s able to show how he feels about himself, about the country, and about the people he’s photographing. But unlike many photographers who are unable or unconcerned about their subjects, in his images I also perceive how his subjects feel about themselves—a rare thing in the whole history of street photography. It’s a very subtle and yet enormous difference. In my work, I constantly attempt to follow this important lesson: treating my subjects as equals rather than putting them on a pedestal or looking down upon them from an aristocratic point of view of the world.
MG: Are there other artists in other mediums who influence your work?
EB: I draw quite a bit of my inspiration from writing and films. I feel very close to Raymond Carver, Fernando Pessoa, Italo Calvino, and José Saramago, among writers. I love quoting them in my books. I find such a close-knit relationship between words and images.
Antonioni, Fellini, and Pasolini and the whole Neorealist movement have certainly influenced my work. Painters such as Bacon, Caravaggio, Goya, da Vinci, Pollock, Matisse, and Picasso are definitely part of my visual influences, as well.
When I was growing up in Palermo, there used to be a trade fair in the city once a year. During that time, for whatever reasons, Italian TV would show, just in Sicily, all these wonderful black-and-white films shot in the fifties and sixties. I vividly remember watching them glued to the TV monitor. I felt very close to that simple and genuine lifestyle being encroached upon by modernity.
But I always work in an intuitive way. I only become aware of certain influences after looking at a complete body of work.
MG: How does your visual style evolve? Is it consciously? Does it develop organically from your subject matter or internally, from you?
EB: I’d say it evolves by itself with internal and external factors coming into play at all times. It’s an organic process that feeds itself both from the subject matter and from the passing of time, which implies aging and looking at the world slightly differently every passing day.
From Bazan Cuba, Ernesto Bazan
Right now, I’m between teaching, in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. My next workshop will start here at the end of February. I’m continuing to work on my project on Salvador. I discovered the city in 2005, by chance. For the first time, after seven years, I’ve decided to take on Carnival. I know it will be nuts, but I’m hoping to make some sense out of this madness, because it’s such an integral part of the city and its people and their culture.
The more I shoot the more my perception of my surroundings is changing. I’m still working primarily in black-and-white and, yet, I feel that the way I’m shooting now in Bahia is very different from the way I was photographing in Cuba. On the island, my main interest was people. Here, in Brazil, I’m venturing in different genres, from street photography to still life, portraiture, and landscape.
For instance, in Bahia I’ve been photographing lots of things that I see on the ground, including garbage. I feel that these new images reveal more now about who I am and what I’m interested in. I like that my way of seeing is changing and adapting to the way I feel about life.
The book that I’m hoping to do one day about Salvador will be a dramatic departure from Bazan Cuba, and I simply love that. It hasn’t been a conscious decision. It’s just that each place evokes and induces another approach. In each location I photograph I feel different, and that difference makes me see differently.
MG: You are now working with a panoramic camera.
EB: I managed to work at the same time with three different cameras while in Cuba, which I have not been able to do again anywhere else. I’ve been working with a panoramic camera since 2001. I love it. It has changed my way of shooting in so many ways. I’m slowly trying to decipher what I’m doing with it. I’ve been taking landscapes, street scenes, portraits, and still lifes. My approach when I use this camera is quite different. You need to get used to a totally different way of shooting. It has opened so many new windows of opportunities. The third and last book on this trilogy on Cuba, slated for completion 2014, is the first body of work that I’ve done with this camera.
MG: You shoot entirely with analog. Why?
EB: I’ve done that all my life. I love the quality and the richness of silver-gelatin prints. I love processing film and being in the darkroom. I adore the idea that I need to wait to see my contact sheets, and I love contacts. I consider each one of them as journal pages. Simply holding one, looking at one, brings me back to that very moment when I took those pictures. I can hear the voices; I can smell the odors around me.
Besides that, what I love about contact sheets is that you can always go back to them with a new sensibility and with the proper distance needed to look at each frame. While editing Al Campo there was an image whose negative I couldn’t find. I was forced to look twice at all my color contacts. In the process, to my great surprise, I discovered 20 new images, which are now part of the book. I was in awe and couldn’t believe my eyes when I’d discovered all these new images.
I’ve asked myself why this was possible. I cannot quite come up with the proper answer. My intuitive reaction is that at the time I first looked at them I was probably too close to those situations for my eye to discern and recognize some of the images.
I believe that your intuitive eye is sometimes ahead of your editing eye. It might take some years for your editing eye to realize, see, and appreciate what your intuitive eye saw at the very moment you took a picture.
MG: How do you manage to keep your eye fresh, to see as though always the first time?
EB: I’m not sure. I can only say that the spiritual energy pervading my life plays a major role.
From Al Campo, Ernesto Bazan
MG: Editing is as important as shooting for you. What do you look for when you edit a photo? Where do you begin? And how do you know when to end?
EB: I believe in simple rules that pictures should always possess and without which they will fail miserably:
The first one is that an interesting image will need to have a well-balanced combination of content and form. When a photograph is lacking either one, or when one of them prevails over the other, most often the picture will not work completely.
The second rule is that an image, no matter its subject matter or genre, needs to speak to us in some way. If we remain indifferent to it, it only means that it’s too anchored in reality, it’s too descriptive, and it lacks the necessary magic.
I like images that take you on a personal journey. I like pictures that convey the range of human emotions and that have grace, poetry, the element of surprise, and wonderment.
Most of my editing and sequencing is done intuitively. I look at a group of images that have been selected, and going over them several times I try to determine which image would be a good start. Slowly an initial sequence starts taking form. As I said, it usually takes me two years, once the work has been completed at the shooting stage, to edit and sequence it into book form.
Right now, I’m in the process of editing my black-and-white panoramic images taken also in the last five years of my Cuban life. I started the whole editing process in 2011. I first assembled all the images I felt had some potential. The following step was and continues to be to share them with many of my students. I’m very privileged to get so many of my students involved in the process. The more I make books the more I believe in the importance of choral editing. We started off with more than 150 photographs, and as we speak we are down to less than 100. I do not have a set, final number in mind, but I feel that the editing and sequencing needs to be continued probably until the end of this year.
The thinning has to keep going as well as the tweaking of the sequence. I feel the bottom line is to work with a solid group of images that you like and slowly find the sequence that you feel would work, that conveys what you did.
For the last two months here in Salvador, almost every morning, after I wake up with fresh eyes, I prepare myself a cup of coffee, and while sipping on my café con leche I look at all the images. Every now and then, I suddenly see a better link between two images, or I start feeling that a certain image is weaker. I pull that out, I move images around, and the following morning sipping coffee, I start looking at them again to see if what I did the day before makes any sense. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a very slow process, but I love it.
Now the next step is to show to my eight students coming for the next workshop here all the images in their new edit and sequence and to hear their opinion. I’m sure some other pictures will be dropped and new connections among images will be found.
MG: How did your choice to self-publish come about?
EB: I strongly believe that deciding to become a teacher was a major revelation in my life. Starting out the publishing house was the next one.
I was totally disgusted by my previous publishing experiences with my first two books, The Perpetual Past and Passing Through. As soon as I envisioned this fourteen-year project on my life in Cuba, I knew that I needed to maintain the full integrity of each image and each word. I couldn’t let anybody alter or destroy its content. I knew that only by self-publishing could I ensure that my wishes would be respected.
As soon as I [relocated to] Mexico, I started editing my images. I began alone, and then I got the help of 50 of my students and friends. With my buddy Juan de la Cruz, we made the initial dummy, after which followed another four as the editing process evolved and many pictures were removed. The cover and the sequence were changed so many times, but slowly we got to the final stage. It took us two years to get where I felt that I was pleased with it.
The next challenge was to fund the book. I wrote a letter to all my students and friends telling them that after having received their creative help, I now needed their financial support. To my great surprise, many of them responded right away, conveying their willingness to support the project. In exchange for their help, I was offering copies of the three limited editions of Bazan Cuba that were going to be printed in English, Italian, and Spanish. The rest is history!
I just feel that it has been an incredible privilege to self-publish the book with so much generous support. This is why I feel that having created my workshops is one of the most important things I’ve done in my life.
MG: You have not only eschewed publishers but also galleries.
I’d say that until recently, it has been quite the opposite: Galleries have eschewed me. I did try, but to no avail. It was like talking to a wall. I believe that was God’s way of saying, Just keep taking pictures and forget about the rest.
In the last few years, things have started to change. A few galleries have been showing interest in my work, and I’ve had a few successful shows in Europe. Nothing in the U.S. yet, but it’s just a matter of being patient.
The fact that my relationship with galleries has been a bit difficult doesn’t mean that I have not sold my work. My students, once again, have played an important role. They have been buying gelatin-silver prints, chromogenic-color prints from Al Campo, and quite few limited editions both of Bazan Cuba and Al Campo, as I mentioned.
Then there is a student that totally blew my mind with his generous, unexpected support. After having purchased three limited editions of Bazan Cuba, he wrote an E-mail saying that he wanted to help me more and that he had a dream. I wrote back asking what was the dream was about. He asked if it was at all possible to buy all 118 original gelatin-silver prints used to publish Bazan Cuba. At first I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. I asked Sissy for advice, and with her great wisdom she said to come up with a fair price. I wrote back proposing just that.
He responded right away asking if it was OK for the check to arrive three days later. I smiled and replied that it was more than fine. Sure enough, the check did arrive in the mail three days later. Sissy and I were so happy. I made a photocopy of the check. I think it would be relevant to add that this once-in-a-life-time offer arrived immediately after we had left Cuba as refugees, leaving everything behind but knowing that regaining my freedom had no price.
MG: You were very successful raising funding through Kickstarter. What was that experience like?
EB: While editing and doing the fund-raising for Al Campo, I realized that due to the terrible financial crisis affecting the economy worldwide, some of my students were facing their own challenges at home. A friend had mentioned about this new platform called Kickstarter, where artists could try to raise money. After looking into it and learning more, with the precious help of Juan we taped the first of three videos to support Al Campo. To my great surprise, many unknown people helped me secure the last remaining funds needed to self-publish Al Campo.
MG: Both your family and your photography are at your heart. And yet your photography often takes you far away from them for long periods of time. How have you managed to strike a balance?
EB: My family is the best thing I have in my life. Without them I’d be miserable. I have described Pietro and Stefano as my helmsmen, Sissy as the anchor, and I’m the boat. Just imagine a boat without them. . . .
It has been hard to stay away from them. We constantly talk about it when we are together, and it’s very healing to do so. Last December, when we spent three special weeks here in Salvador, I asked my sons separately if they liked having a father like me who is not around as much as he should be. I was shocked to hear almost identical responses: “Yes, Daddy, we like the way you are.”
Since they were small, I told them about my dream and the importance of quality versus quantity time. Slowly they are grasping what I’m trying to convey, but I know that I need to spend as much time as I can with Sissy and the boys. It’s no excuse for staying away more than I should. I’m constantly trying to find a balance.
I’ve been working on a book on them. The idea came about watching my sons moving from children to teenagers. I see their bodies changing as well as their attitude toward us, the parents, and the world at large. I feel they are loosing the purity that I’ve tried to capture with some of my pictures.
I’ve felt compelled to give them this lifetime gift in which we will try to incorporate, in addition to some images taken by me and other friends. also some drawings, some words, and many other little surprises. I hope they will like it and pass it on to their children and grandchildren. I’d like to write an open letter, which in time will become a testament, a legacy for them to absorb if they want to.
MG: Where do you see yourself in 20 years? What is your dream for the future, for your work? You’ve begun publishing books, as well. How is it to straddle both artist and businessman?
EB: I don’t think about it. I take life a day at a time. One of my biggest dreams is to see many of my students’ work published by BPP [Bazan Photos Publishing]. Sometimes, I try to envision what it will feel like to have ten to 20 titles of beautiful, soulful work turned into beautifully printed books and out there circulating, being seen, being shared in the world. I’ve been able to publish my books thanks to my students, who have greatly helped me both creatively and financially. Without them it would have been impossible! This is why I feel so compelled to bring to light some of their amazing images. I know we will. It’s another revelation that needs to materialize at the right time.
MG: Have you ever thought about what you would have been if you hadn’t been a photographer?
EB: As I said before, I was dreaming of becoming a soccer player.
MG: What for you is the greatest challenge of being a photographer?
EB: To continue to find inspiration in your life and to continue to have the desire to keep taking pictures. I’m sure one of these days the inspiration and desire might peter out.
I see that happening with photographers and artists whose work I admire. I just assume that it will happen to me, too, as part of life. I just hope that the moment I see that in my own images I’ll stop taking pictures and do something else. I like writing and other forms of expression. Who knows what I’ll do next.
MG: And what is its greatest reward?
EB: To feel moved by something unfolding before your very eyes no matter if a good image will come out of it. It’s the experience that counts the most. The end results are always secondary.
MG: Is there a new Havana, a new Cuba, for you? Do you have any final words on the country, or for the country?
EB: My new Havana is Salvador; my new Cuba is Bahia. I feel extremely lucky that here in Brazil I’ve found a place that reminds me of Cuba—with the only difference that, unlike Cuba, it is a free country. I’m planning to work here for a long time.
Marlaine Glicksman is a visual storyteller based in New York City: an award-winning filmmaker, screenwriter, photographer, and journalist who creates dramatic character-driven stories set in multicultural contexts both narrative and documentary and in moving images and still. She is currently in postproduction on The Commandment Keepers, a feature documentary on the highly observant African-American synagogue in Harlem.
ASX CHANNEL: ERNESTO BAZAN
(All rights reserved. Text @ Marlaine Glicksman, Images @ Ernesto Bazan)