DOC­U­MEN­TARY PHO­TOG­RA­PHY, AN ART AMONG ARTS… In­ter­view with pho­tog­ra­pher Arien Chang

Art On Cuba - - Index - Grethel Morell Otero

An artist who started in a dark­room, sur­rounded by rolls, with no aca­demic train­ing, look­ing for the imag­i­nary and for the way to ap­pro­pri­ate and con­tex­tu­al­ize the pho­to­graphic im­age. Through­out al­most fif­teen years of work, aes­thetic sound­ness and shrewd vi­sion have made of him one of the most eye– catch­ing Cuban pho­tog­ra­phers on the con­tem­po­rary visual scene. Suc­ces­sor of great tra­di­tions, im­por­tant firms, both Cuban and for­eign he has be­come a leader of street pho­tog­ra­phy, and the por­trait of ev­ery­day ac­tions and char­ac­ters.

The city, its dy­nam­ics and dwellers, march with nat­u­ral steps be­fore a skill­ful viewfinder. Hence, the pro­found Cuba, Prague, Delhi, Varanasi. Fixed in the doc­u­men­tary and the pho­to­graphic es­say style, from black and white to col­ored pic­tures, Chang cap­tures ges­tures, ex­pres­sions, lo­ca­tions, all as com­mon as un­likely, to put to­gether in­tense and re­al­is­tic mi­cro sto­ries, that viewed through the im­mor­tal­ity of the lens might be in­ter­preted as ab­surd and unimag­in­able scenes.

Chang is an artist with­out be­ing an artist, a pre­cur­sor of a gen­er­a­tional style, and to­day he opens this di­a­logue from the prac­tice of his sea­soned speech.

First years in pho­tog­ra­phy

I started in 2003 and I just wanted to take pic­tures of peo­ple, to show the Cuban way of life and ev­ery­thing sur­round­ing me in my daily life. I took a two-month course and when I be­gan work­ing I re­al­ized I knew noth­ing. In pho­tog­ra­phy you have to be ex­posed to re­al­ity, the day–to–day ex­pe­ri­ence teaches you.

The process for pho­tog­ra­phy was more com­pli­cated, it was ana­log­i­cal, not dig­i­tal. I was work­ing with rolls, in black and white, for seven years. I had no spe­cific themes; I just took doc­u­men­tary im­ages in the streets and the city. I was in­ter­ested in doc­u­men­tary work. I knew im­por­tant mae­stros,

I looked for in­for­ma­tion in books, given that in­ter­net ac­cess was lim­ited at that time. The His­pano–Amer­i­can Cen­ter for Cul­ture had a good col­lec­tion of books on pho­tog­ra­phy, and some friends brought me the ma­te­rial to de­velop the rolls and print, they gave me the co­or­di­nates to study and fo­cus.

The in­trin­sic re­la­tion­ship with the city

I was born in Ha­bana Vieja (Old Ha­vana), in Monte Street, in Jesús María neigh­bor­hood, a hec­tic area. I did not have to go far to find what I wanted. I just had to walk and in Ha­vana you have the per­fect back­ground for a per­fect im­age. Even if you live in the city, you will al­ways find a new sit­u­a­tion, a dif­fer­ent place, a stair­case, a light, a new space that grabs your at­ten­tion. When you think you know all the sur­round­ings, you are sur­prised. You work with a col­league and you en­ter dif­fer­ent places or you see an un­known sit­u­a­tion. You re­al­ize the shot can be in­fi­nite.

Ha­vana dwellers, Cubans from prov­inces, ci­ti­zens of the world

At some point I needed to dis­cover my coun­try. How­ever, we Cubans are not used to un­der­tak­ing tourism. We are not tourists in any place. We have not prop­erly in­cor­po­rated that con­cept. I be­gan work­ing on spe­cific projects and started trav­el­ing the coun­try, look­ing for sub­jects, for char­ac­ters re­lated to the sto­ries I was work­ing on. Ev­ery­thing was dif­fer­ent: the peo­ple, life in ru­ral ar­eas, in fish­ing towns.. I had the chance to travel abroad and I did the same: I dis­cov­ered places; I tried to learn about the cul­ture and the peo­ple. I al­ways try to go un­no­ticed, look­ing for spon­tane­ity. Even when I have had to do it, I do not like peo­ple to know that I'm tak­ing pic­tures, so they do not change their at­ti­tude.

When the in­di­vid­ual does not want to be pho­tographed or spon­tane­ity fails

If some­thing is strik­ing for me, and I do not achieve spon­tane­ity, I make con­ver­sa­tion for the in­di­vid­ual to un­der­stand what I am try­ing to do, and to ap­pre­ci­ate that I try to re­spect­fully take the im­age. The sub­ject should know that I want to give that mo­ment I dis­cov­ered. I look for nat­u­ral sit­u­a­tions in the streets, on very few oc­ca­sions I have had to speak with the in­di­vid­ual to take his or her pic­ture. When I have had to, I have been un­sat­is­fied with the re­sult. I do not like peo­ple to pose for me.

Up to a point, it has been com­pli­cated for me to break the bar­rier of in­ter­act­ing with in­di­vid­u­als. When Cubans see oth­ers tak­ing pic­tures in the streets, they want to know why and what for. It dif­fers from other coun­tries be­cause of the func­tion­ing of so­cial and au­dio­vi­sual me­dia. Abroad, peo­ple are more afraid of been pho­tographed. In Cuba, there is not so much fear of be­ing pho­tographed, but some peo­ple still ask. When peo­ple see a cam­era, they think about news, in­for­ma­tion, and in Cuba we are not used to be pho­tographed by Cubans. If tourists take pic­tures, it is con­sid­ered a nor­mal be­hav­ior.

Ethics be­hind the lens

I have been in sit­u­a­tions where I have had to de­cide whether to help the per­son or take the pic­ture. This comes down to the in­di­vid­ual. You need to be cold minded in pho­tog­ra­phy. The more pro­fes­sional and fo­cused you are while tak­ing a pic­ture, the bet­ter the re­sult. It's dif­fi­cult, but it comes with prac­tice.

A black and white or a col­ored vi­sion

Due to ig­no­rance, I used to think that black and white photos had more im­pact. It was also what I had most stud­ied. I re­al­ized it was an ex­cuse and I started learn­ing about color photos and their com­plex­ity, and I re­spect it. I found some of the ex­perts in black and white I had learnt from had be­come mae­stros in color photos. When I de­cided to start with color pho­to­graphs, the dig­i­tal style started. So I was faced with the con­flict of whether to main­tain the ana­logic pho­to­graph, which was so hard, given that in Cuba there are no ma­te­ri­als for that pur­pose, or it is dif­fi­cult to find them. Be­sides, I was used to only one cam­era. Fi­nally, in 2009 I started with dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy. I have started projects in black and white, and I have fin­ished them with color. It has been de­ter­mined by the space.

I did not have to go far to find what I wanted. I just had to walk and in Ha­vana you have the per­fect back­ground for a per­fect im­age…

Doc­u­men­tary pho­to­graphs in color, you are among the pioneers of a gen­er­a­tion

When I started with color dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy, my in­flu­ence was not Cuban pho­tog­ra­phy. I knew of the work of our great photo re­porters from the 1960s, but I knew more about in­ter­na­tional mae­stros. Then, I got to know the work of Raúl Cañibano, Al­fredo Sara­bia, Mario Díaz, Pe­dro Abas­cal, Martí... mas­ters of the doc­u­men­tary, and I re­al­ized none of them worked with color in doc­u­men­tary photos. That en­cour­aged me, but I still do not con­sider my­self a pho­tog­ra­pher to­tally ful­filled with color pho­tog­ra­phy.

You are a pho­tog­ra­pher com­mit­ted to your time

I am. Not to be pre­ten­tious, but I am aware of the im­pact of pho­to­graphs. This gen­er­a­tion's doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy must leave a le­gacy, a reg­istry of what hap­pens now; it is one of the most ef­fec­tive arts. In the doc­u­men­tary pho­to­graph, the im­age speaks for it­self. It can be ma­nip­u­lated; it de­pends on how the photos are pub­lished and on who writes about them, but it is quite ex­plicit.

Cuba is a very pho­to­genic coun­try and there­fore it is hard to at­tain a good im­age with­out re­sult­ing com­mer­cial or cliché… I do not con­sider my­self an artist, but I try to do art with my work.

Banal­ity of im­ages

Cuba is a very pho­to­genic coun­try and there­fore it is hard to at­tain a good im­age with­out re­sult­ing com­mer­cial or cliché. In Cuba we get daz­zled, pho­tog­ra­phers take many pic­tures and all of a sud­den they pub­lish a book; how­ever they are miss­ing the Cuban essence, the idio­syn­crasy. You have to live in Cuba to un­der­stand the coun­try.

Doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy

Doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy needs more fresh im­pe­tus from our gal­leries, and more spa­ces to pro­mote what we have. We need ad­ver­tise­ment. The new gen­er­a­tions pre­fer a more con­cep­tual snap­shot, more elab­o­rated, more from a stu­dio or from a com­puter, rather than go­ing out onto the streets for im­ages to cre­ate a story and co­her­ence to be shown. Al­though there are not many young­sters do­ing doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy, Cuba has some very good ones.

An art among arts…

I am just be­gin­ning. Cartier Bres­son used to say that pho­tog­ra­phy is un­der­stood af­ter ten years of work­ing on it, and you die learn­ing. It is a dif­fi­cult ca­reer and the lim­its are es­tab­lished by the artist. Some peo­ple con­ceive this art as a way to make money and as liv­ing, oth­ers be­lieve it is a pas­sion, a way of life. The last group of artists ap­pre­ci­ates it in a dif­fer­ent man­ner.

I do not con­sider my­self an artist, but I try to do art with my work. Doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy is made out of real life, it is a chal­lenge, it is cre­at­ing an im­age out of re­al­ity, seen as a work of art. I am at­tracted by the plas­tic­ity of the im­ages, and that feel­ing they pro­voke, which be­fore learn­ing about pho­tog­ra­phy, I be­lieved ex­isted only in paint­ing. A cam­era is a very pow­er­ful tool. It is not only about freez­ing time, a tes­ti­mony, the his­tory of dif­fer­ent coun­tries, of dif­fer­ent so­ci­eties, of ev­ery cul­ture. ƒ

IN­TER­VIEW WITH PHO­TOG­RA­PHER ARIEN CHANG

Un­ti­tled, 2012 Courtesy the artist

Courtesy the artist

Un­ti­tled, 2015 From the se­ries Di­vas, 2013-2018

Courtesy the artist

From the se­ries Par­ran­das, 2010-2018 Un­ti­tled (Her­shie's train), 2011

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