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View from the Photo Desk: Q&A with photographer Ernesto Bazan
Q: Please tell us a little about yourself, where you are from and why you became a photographer.
A: I was born in Palermo, Sicily, an island off southern Italy, 45 years ago. I strongly believe that I'm the photographer I am, thanks to the fact that I was born there and that I had the type of upbringing I received there. I believe my work is about searching out my lost childhood wherever I go. The strong connection with Cuba stems from this hungry search.
A: I feel comfortable with the term street photographer. I'm a wanderer of daily life wherever I go. I first start taking pictures, then the projects come to mind.
Q: The work you have become most known for is your documentation of Cuba's 'Special Period,' the transitional time after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Fidel Castro's Cuba lost its greatest ally and sponsor. Why did you choose to work in Cuba, and would you please tell us what it has been like to work there for such a long time?
A: I strongly feel that I was destined to go there. It has changed my life completely, both from a professional point of view and as a human being. I broke my single vow and became a spouse to my lovely wife Sissy and fathered our twin boys Pietro and Stefano (the best thing I've done in my life. Far better than any picture I've taken. There is actually no comparison to be drawn. The former overshadows the latter by far). I also had the privilege to win some of what I consider the most important photographic prizes in the world thanks to my images from Cuba. In life, I've learned not to take anything for granted: Cuba and my life here are two.
I came here for sheer coincidence and curiosity. I was stunned by the place because it reminded me of the Sicily I saw growing up but could not photograph since I was a small child. After my first week was over, I returned to Mexico and, without thinking twice, I went straight to the travel agency and bought a two-week package tour. I returned immediately. If someone would have told me back then that Cuba was going to change my life so drastically, I'd have laughed, but it has indeed. I was fortunate to arrive at a very critical time in their history, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when The Special Period began, when Cubans were left like orphans to their own devices. I've been photographing for the last 11 years this unique time. This year, I've finally started working on a dummy of the book. I'm taking my time with it since I know that it will be the most important body of work that I'll ever produce in my life. I can simply add that my family is an integral part of the book.
Q: You have chosen to work mostly in black and white, but have shot some color. How and why do you select a particular medium for a project?
A: For the last three years, I've started shooting in color a specific project on the Cuban countryside called El Campo. I taught myself how to print color and I do all the printing myself. I love this new addition to my work. I feel like a little boy playing with a new toy. The quality of color negative has improved greatly and I love the color palette I get. It's similar and yet very different from my B&W work. I've been taking interiors, still lifes, landscapes and, of course, my Cuban farmer friends. One of my friend/editors keeps telling me that what I'm doing is better than my B&W. Frankly, it doesn't matter to me to establish a comparison. I simply need and want to do more of it. Time will tell.
Q: Apart from Cuba, are there other places you find yourself motivated to explore in depth photographically?
A: When I fell in love Cuba in 1992, I started neglecting many other places where I adored shooting in the past. Thanks to my workshops (I'll be celebrating my third-year anniversary in January), I've been shooting again in Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, and my beloved Sicily and even in New York City.
Q: Let's talk about tools now. Do you use digital cameras in your work?
A: I like keeping it simple: a body and a 28 mm or 35 mm lenses. By doing that, I can concentrate on the picture-taking, especially since I've learned to master the tools I use. Digital doesn't interest me for the time being. I want to shoot negatives till the day the big companies announce that they will stop producing real film. I love Tri-X and Kodak Gold, the amateur color negative film. I believe it is the equivalent of Tri-X. Hopefully one day, Kodak will ask me to do some advertising with my pictures. Some of my students have been shooting digitally, and I'm impressed with the quality, especially in color, but I love to hold my negatives in my hands, make contacts, and insert them in the enlarger.
Q: Over the last couple of years you have been using a panoramic Hasselblad X-Pan camera for some of your work and exploring a new style with abstract images and still lifes. How has it been going, and are you planning on producing more of this kind of work?
A: It's an amazing tool with probably the sharpest lens I have ever seen in my life. Far from easy to use well, but surely a very fascinating format. I've been doing lots of new things with it both in color and B&W. I'm letting most of the images age like good wine. I simply enjoy seeing how different and yet similar my approach can be. Once again, I've been experimenting a lot with it. Just imagine that I've been doing a series involving cars and nature. I'm still figuring out what I'm doing, but I love every second of it.
Q: Are there any photographers whose work has inspired you?
A: Without hesitation, my mentor in all these years has been Robert Frank. I love his penetrating and unpolished vision, to show things how he feels they are: moody, happy, sad, with lots of heart in each single one of them. I feel that my work in Cuba follows this photographic path of self-discovery and revelation.
Q: You teach a series of photo workshops in places such as Ecuador, Mexico, Sicily and Cuba. What are you hoping to pass on to your students?
A: Three years ago, I grew totally dissatisfied with magazine work after having done it for over 20 years. God, the same and only God, who told me to be a photographer in a dream when I was 17, opened a new path for me. I had no idea that I had a natural gift for teaching and that I was going to inspire so many students. This year has been a very special year, with 100 students - a record number. But in life I've learned not to measure success simply by sheer numbers. What has made my teaching experience so very special has been the unique relationship that I've established with almost all of my students; and how I was able to motivate, inspire them, and make them better photographers. I also cherish that (true to my belief that teaching is above all a mission) I have welcomed with the same enthusiasm both full workshops and courses with only a few students. I'm letting them know that street photography is the most challenging genre of photography there is, where we are totally at the mercy of the flow of life, with very little control over it. I teach them that if they are serious about it, they need to make a life commitment to it; I show them how and why a few pictures work and why the vast majority remain anchored to reality, unable to transcend it. If I see that they are committed, I even introduce them to the Goddess of photography to help guide them through this uncertain but amazing path in life.
More of Ernesto Bazan's work may be viewed at bazanphotos.com.
© Roger Richards
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