La Quinceañera during Cuba’s special period
A Few Líneas – is a weekly column — less than 200-word posts on everyday trivial and not-so-trivial observations, by Dharma E. Cortes.
Today is time for MORE than “A few líneas” because 200 words are not enough to share one of my best travel experiences ever. I recently spent a week in La Habana, Cuba, and there I met and shadowed Raúl Cañibano, the wonderful Cuban photographer. His work has been praised by people other than me.
More than a year ago, Adriana Teresa praised Cañibano’s work in the New York Times’ Lens – the photography blog of the NYT— and she lamented not having the opportunity of meeting Raúl in person. Sorry Adriana, not only did I meet Raúl, but I had the privilege of spending several days with him wandering around the streets of La Habana Vieja.
Watching him work his camera in a setting where he is no foreigner was quite an experience. It was like witnessing an anthropologist working in its own backyard. Watching him at work and sharing a few meals, palitos de ron and mojitos together did not stop me from wanting to know more about the magic that comes out of his camera. I wanted to know more about the creative process driving his magnificent photos, and very gentilmente, he agreed to be interviewed for New Latina.
Excerpts from our conversation about photography in Cuba
DC – What inspires your photographic work? What do you look for in your photographs?
RC – I don’t like pretty photos or pretty landscapes. What I really like are human landscapes, people’s everyday lives. I chose the countryside as a theme because that is where I lived when I was a kid, and now as an adult I want to express all those experiences I lived back then.
DC – When did you discover that you wanted to be a photographer?
RC – When I was a kid, on my way to school I used to walk by a store that sold Russian cameras, but I could not afford them. Already by age 15 I could feel that photography was important to me.
DC – Tell me about the first time that you had a camera in your hands…
RC – It was year 1989, when I was almost 28 (Raúl smiled as he remembered this moment). At that age I began to take photographs.
DC – Who gave you that first camera?
RC – I went away on vacation, and I met this professor who had a Russian camera. He made his living taking photos, and he took me to his photo lab. When I saw that, I became so obsessed, that when I returned to La Habana, I immediately quit my job [as a welder in civil aviation] and became a photographer until this day. I spent one year working in a studio learning the basics of photography. At the beginning I did weddings and birthdays to make a living, but then I felt the urge to express myself through my camera. In the 1990s as I was walking in La Habana I saw an exhibit by Alfredo Sarabia, a Cuban photographer. That was when I said to myself: “This is it; I am going to begin to express myself through my camera.” Since I had no artistic background nor did I come from a family of artists, I spent a lot of time at the Biblioteca Nacional de Cuba, becoming knowledgeable, learning about Cuban paintings, and about world photographers, because I was starting from zero.
RC – I aim for some kind of mystery in my photos. That is the first thing I look for. And I try to capture multiple levels. I am interested in the psychological photo: gazes, gestures… how people live.
DC – Watching you work here in La Habana, I am struck with your image as a Cuban photographer, looking around for that photograph. You seem to belong to the environment encapsulating your subject matter, yet at the same time you do not…
RC – I don’t know…
RC – My landscapes are human landscapes. I am interested in people, how they live, their surroundings, their experiences, the good things, the bad things…What I am creating is a historical document. It is not political, I am capturing an era.
DC – When you are not in Cuba, what do you photograph?
RC – I hardly take any photos. However, I remember taking photos for a project in the United States. It was harder to take photos there than in Cuba. In order to take photos you have to know more about the history of the place, how people live… here [in Cuba] it is easier because is the day-to-day life, what I live.
DC – Tell me about the first time you saw one of your photographs published…
RC – It was in a Japanese magazine in the 1990s. It was a great feeling, because the 1990s was a very difficult period. There were no photographic materials: no films, no chemicals. I had to mix my own chemicals to develop film. Films were old, and many times nothing would come out of them.
DC – Tell me about your transition to digital photography …
RC – It was very hard for me…really hard. It took me more than one year to fully embrace it. I would start digital and stop. Digital has its advantages…you can see how your work is going.
DC – When did you start using color?
RC – A year ago. It was hard at the beginning. In order not to do it, I would say that black and white is more expressive, but that is not true, color has its own language, its own photographic discourse, and sometimes color even helps you compose an image.
DC – Nowadays, how do you approach color when you take a photo?
RC – I still look at it as if it were black and white. I am still trying to learn more about color. I still have to adapt to color, I have to study color more. I already have an image [in my mind]. I know where a good image is, but I still have to manage color better.
DC – As you are composing a photo…
RC – …I am not paying attention to color…
DC – What are you paying attention to?
RC – The composition, that decisive moment, what was happening right at that moment.
DC – I have seen you running after an image, what are the things that are happening on the streets that make you run after that image?
RC – I walk around and it is an instinct, sometimes I do not even think. At that moment, I don’t know, I see it and it is something that has an impact on me. At that moment, I do not think that much about it.