DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY, AN ART AMONG ARTS… Interview with photographer Arien Chang
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 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.
From the series Parrandas, 2010-2018 Untitled (Hershie's train), 2011
Untitled, 2015 From the series Divas, 2013-2018
Untitled, 2012 Courtesy the artist