In conversation with Ernesto Bazan about his life and his new book ISLA

Ernesto Bazan - from ISLA
Ernesto Bazan – from ISLA

Last week, I spoke over skype with Ernesto Bazan from his home in Veracruz, Mexico, about his new book, ISLA, and about his life. Bazan’s work often flies under the radar in the world of online photography. His CV has some information, and this interview with American Suburb X has more. Bazan was asked to join Magnum Photos at the age of 23 in 1982, but left a few years later. Born in Italy, he was based in New York for a number of years but moved to Cuba in 1995, where he lived until 2006, when he was forced to leave the island. He has released two previous books on Cuba: Bazan Cuba (on amazon), a collection of black and white 35mm images, and Al Campo, a collection of color 35mm images. His new book, ISLA (←pdf teaser), completes the trilogy with black and white panoramics. He quit assignment work around 2002 and now funds his work now primarily through self-produced, intimate shooting workshops in a handful of locations around the world. The books have all been self-funded and -published, though over the years he was received countless awards and fellowships, including the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund, the Mother Jones Foundation for Photojournalism, World Press Photo, the Alicia Patterson Foundation (two stories: Education in Cuba and El Periodicio Especial in Cuba) and the Guggenheim Foundation. I first met Ernesto in 2012 when he was staying at a friend’s place in Boston during a workshop. I fell in love with his book, Bazan Cuba. As his latest book begins the final stages of publication, I asked him to talk about this new book, his process, and how his life and his work intertwine.

Here is our conversation, transcribed from the recording:

M. Scott Brauer: Could you give a little background about the book and how it fits in with the trilogy? Is there one unifying statement that fits all of this work together?

Ernesto Bazan: I can only say that I believe that having gone to Cuba wasn’t just another trip to a foreign land to discover and take pictures. Cuba, as I’ve said in the past, was one of the most important chapters in my life, both as a man and as a photographer. Why? Because if somebody would have told me when I first set foot in Cuba that I was finally going to find my mate in life, that I was going to be the father of twin boys, that Raul Castro was going to allow me to photograph the Cuban army or that I was going to finally–after attempting 14 times to get the W Eugene Smith Award–get it thanks to my pictures in Cuba in the same year that my twin boys were born….I would not have believed any of that. But all of that, I can happily say, has happened. Going to Cuba was part of my destiny. And the most beautiful things about the trilogy is that when I was living and working Cuba, I had no clue that I was taking pictures even for one book.

“Going to Cuba was part of my destiny” -Ernesto Bazan

What happened in 2001 is that I started carrying three cameras with me instead of one, because one curator had asked me to take some color pictures in Cuba for a book, which then came out. At the same time I was offered a second-hand panoramic camera, which I tried and loved. But you see, I had no clue or idea that this was going to become a trilogy, but it just happened. That’s the best answer I can provide you with.

I had no idea that you were shooting all three of these books at the same time.

Well, the first one was shot starting when I arrived in Cuba in 1992. The last two books, Al Campo and ISLA, were shot from 2001 to 2006, the last five years I was in Cuba.

Was it a lot of work, mentally, to switch between black and white, color, and panoramic. What makes you decide to shoot an image in one format? How did you juggle three cameras at once?

That’s a good question, and it requires sort of a long answer. I’ll try to keep it short. Basically, I think I was only able to do this totally insane switching from one camera to the other thanks to the full immersion I was able to be in in Cuba. I’ve tried to shoot three cameras at the same time in other countries, and I’ve failed miserably. At best, now, I can do black and white 35mm and panoramic, but I can not do color at the same time. It was very schizophrenic, because, you know, you have to think in three different ways, which is very difficult, and then decide in a split second which camera I would use first. Sometimes I also felt that I could take pictures of the same situation with maybe two cameras. In the end, what we’ve been trying to do with my students during the editing of the three books is to put the best photographs of all the possible photographs that I have. That means that I do have, in certain situations, pictures in both color and black and white, or color and panoramic. We spent two years, at least, editing, and we decided that in order to make each book stand out, we couldn’t really have the same situation twice, even though both pictures are good. And you know, if you start comparing two pictures, you always find which one is best between the two.

I’ll give you a good example of that, which you will only be able to see once you see ISLA. I had the opportunity when I was photographing one of the farmers’ families in Cuba to take what I would describe as intimate portraits of some of the family members, including Juana Margarita, who is the mother of two sons that are my friends. I remember one day I was walking around the house and she was lying in bed, and she looked beautiful and, I would say, sensual, even though she was already in her sixties. So there I was and I ask her if it was okay to take a picture and she said yes. So I took the picture first with color film. It’s a beautiful, novel portrait of her just lying in bed, but then I picked up the panorama camera. All of the sudden a little puppy came out from under the bed and started barking at me. So I was lucky enough to incorporate the puppy in the panoramic photograph. When we compared the two photographs–even though we liked the color portrait of Juana Margarita in her bed–since we were going to do a panoramic photo one day, we decided to use that one picture. [MSB: You can see this image in the ISLA teaser pdf.]

Ernesto Bazan - from ISLA
Ernesto Bazan – from ISLA

In Bazan Cuba, which I’m most familiar with, you include a lot of photos of you family. A lot of documentary photographers would not do that, I think, but your family became part of the story. What made you decide to include your family in the story of Cuba that you’re trying to tell?

First of all, what I was doing in Cuba, unlike a lot of other photographers, was photographing my life. I was not just photographing Cubans. But my pictures from Cuba are the way they are because they go beyond just an interesting documentation of the island like thousands of other photographers of done. Of course, there are beautiful books, beautiful pictures [from other photographers] that I appreciate. I think what really made the difference with me is that immediately after getting married in 1995 and realizing that my wife was pregnant with twin boys–I was living in New York–I realized that the time had come for me to move to Cuba. So moving there made the difference. Why? Because as Vicki Goldberg rightly pointed out in the afterword that she wrote for Bazan Cuba, unlike many photographers, including myself in other countries and myself in the first three years of going to Cuba from New York, I was no longer parachuting myself into Cuba. I was living from within. And by living from within, I was able to break what I describe as the invisible glass between the subjects and me. By doing so, it became natural to incorporate some pictures of my family because they were part of my daily life.

The one thing that I would like to add is that after I make ISLA, the next book to come will be the first of my students’ best work. In 2015, I’m going to make the first book of one of my students. We have six or seven lined up–not because they are my students–but let me tell you, and as I like to tell them, we are going to put them on the international photographic map, because their work is outstanding. They’re completely unknown, but that is one of the reasons we created Bazan Photo Publishing in the first place. So far, two books and ISLA have come out. The first will be from Willard Pate, one of my students. [MSB: You can see a few pictures from this upcoming book, and another by Juan De La Cruz, on the Bazan Photo Publishing website.]

And then after that book, I’m going to do a book on my family. It will be a continuation of ISLA, in a way, or the trilogy. Some of the pictures from Bazan Cuba will be part of this book [about my family] but there will be a lot of new photographs. I like to say that, after this book comes out, I could be content with just that. I wouldn’t care if any other books of mine would come out. By making this book about my family, it’s like giving an open testament…an open will to my own kids, and hopefully to their children and grandchildren. The book will have not just good photographs, but it will also have snapshots. It will have drawings that they made…drawings that I made when I was six. And it will have a drawing that my father made when he came to visit Cuba. It will be very personal.

“I was no longer parachuting myself into Cuba. I was living from within. And by living from within, I was able to break what I describe as the invisible glass between the subjects and me.” -Ernesto Bazan

Your father recently passed away. You included your mother’s writing in Bazan Cuba. What does your father’s life and death mean to you on an artistic level?

You will have the opportunity to read about this in ISLA. I thought this [the book] was a closing chapter of my life, and there have been a lot of other closing chapters, including my father’s demise. In early September, I received news that my father was sick and I headed down to Sicily to see him. Unfortunately by the time I got there, he had already died. I took pictures of that, of seeing him the last time, even though I didn’t know why. I wrote something, which in the end made it to the book.

I say my mother has been the artistic influence in my life, because she has been an amazing writer and contributed to some of my books with her text. But my father was also a very important figure in my life because I learned to be perseverant, as he was, in my life, and to have this sort of stubbornness to keep moving no matter what and to keep going ahead no matter how difficult the future might seem. I like to say that I combined these qualities that I inherit from both of them, and that’s who I am.

You mentioned that you would be content if you had no more books come out. What do you think about your photographic legacy and what these pictures mean to your family? What do you want people to see when they look at your work?

To be honest with you, I don’t know what I want people to feel. I mean, it’s up to them to decide. To me, it’s just a miracle that I was able to spend all this time in that place. It was also part of my destiny to leave the island. I’m in awe to see that after fourteen years of living and working Cuba, and eight years outside, editing, sequencing, fundraising, among other things, I’ve been able to produce this unimaginable trilogy. I don’t know what to think. I’m just saying that people can draw their own conclusions.

What I like is that each body of work shows a different sort of approach, a different state of mind. It shows a different way that I felt about the Cuban people. This last book is the ultimate confirmation of how much I love the Cuban people. It’s a book about love. It’s a sort of love affair, and at the same time it’s a sort of final goodbye to an island that gave me so much and, at the same time, cast me out at the time that I was meant to leave there.

Cuba has a complicated history. There’s the daily life of people who live there, but there’s also the poverty and violence. In your images I see a celebration of life, but you also don’t shy away from the difficult reality of life in Cuba. How do you balance these two sides of Cuba?

That’s a good question. I like to photograph a big spectrum of life. I try to photograph what I like to describe, especially in the last few years, the “sacredness” of life, meaning that life is a gift…life is sacred. Now, after my father’s demise, I realized that life is precious. We only have this life, and we really need to take advantage and enjoy it as much as we can. I feel that the pictures want to show that. They want to show that there are difficult moments, like in everybody’s life, but there are also moments of joy.

When I look at some photographic books or projects and I only see desperation and I only see death, I just lose interest right away. Because no matter how desperate life can be, there is always a ray of hope. I always try to see that, no matter how difficult or impoverished can be. There’s a sense of dignity to people that I always try to put forth in my photographs, and I want that to be seen.

This last book, ISLA, is the most gentle and meditative of the three books. I think the format forced me to take a step back, in order to incorporate more of the scene. But at the same time, I didn’t lose the closeness that my pictures tend to have. So even though it’s a panoramic format, I use it in the same way that I use my 35mm camera. One of my students pointed that out to me; I wasn’t even aware of that. I wasn’t just taking pictures of landscapes. I took pictures of everything [with the panoramic camera]. I like to think that the XPan has really helped me expand my vision in such a beautiful way. I took everything from landscapes to still life to street scenes to portraits. It really opened up new ways of feeling and seeing life.

You said you photograph a wide range of subjects and then edit it together. What compels you to take a picture, and how do you decide how it all fits together? How did these books come together?

Well, to answer the first part of your question, it’s an intuitive process. Something happens before my eyes has to trigger something within me….an emotion or a feeling of some sort. As Robert Frank said, “I took pictures of what was inside of me, not what was outside.” I feel exactly the same way. I photograph with my internal eye, which is the eye that is totally connected to my heart and to my soul and to my feelings. Once my internal eye reacts, I take a picture. There must be something in the situation that moves in some way, or must touch me or must hit me. That’s how I take a picture.

“There must be something in the situation that moves in some way, or must touch me or must hit me. That’s how I take a picture.” -Ernesto Bazan

Then, there’s the long and painful editing process. There are things you’ve taken that look like shit and they don’t go past the mere description of what the pictures are about. But then, if you’re lucky enough, there are some magical, quintessential moments that show up, and that’s the beauty of photography. So once I start collecting the images, I’m the first one to select some images. But then, I believe profoundly in in choral editing, meaning editing with my students. I’ve developed a very unique relationship with my students. I don’t feel insecure about showing my work. I want them to give me feedback, and that’s how the editing begins. I start editing, and then I start sharing.

With ISLA, for instance, it’s been about two years of editing. I teach nine workshops a year, so I’ve shared those pictures in eighteen workshops. I get amazing feedback. Sometimes I don’t agree with everything they say, but if they’re able to convince me that a picture should be removed, or that a picture should be moved around within the sequence, or that one picture can become the cover of the book, as has happened in the past, I follow their advice. By confronting myself with 50 or even more people, I’m better able to really come up with a sequence that really speaks more eloquently, and I love that.

I share that with some of my fellow photographers, and they say you must be insane. They say, “How can you share the work with some beginners?” If a beginner is a sensitive person, he or she is entitled to an opinion and I want to hear that opinion. I love that.

Ernesto Bazan - from ISLA
Ernesto Bazan – from ISLA

How do you fund your work? You used to do assignment work…do you do that any longer? You’ve been doing countless workshops over the years, how do those fit in?

No, I don’t [do assignments]. I stopped doing that, more or less, when I decided to become a teacher in 2002. Because of my workshops, I had to leave Cuba in 2006, which is ironic. I fund all my work thanks to the generosity of my students. This will be the third self-published book now. In exchange for their support, I usually give them two options. The first is to pre-acquire a limited edition of the book. I’ve done the same with ISLA. Of course some who could afford the limited edition of one book cannot any longer, but there’s a hardcore group of students that have bought all three limited editions of each book.

The economic situation is what it is, but these students can help me by buying these books at over $1000 each. That is the foundation of how I build a book. Even if they can’t buy the limited edition, their names will be a part of the thank you note at the end of the book. I think that by helping these students to take better pictures over all these years, I’ve developed all of these incredible friendships and I’ve also had the unique and amazing, priceless privilege of just concentrating on taking my own photographs over the last thirteen years.

I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve had at least seven or eight workshops with just one student. What does that mean? It means that I’m not making any money. I’m actually losing money. But I’m not losing time. And I’m not losing sight of what I’m doing. I’m helping this one person who is willing to come from far away to study with me and get better. In exchange for that, I’m given the amazing privilege to keep taking pictures of what I want to photograph.

And out of all of my workshops, you can see how the modus operandi of my future work is developing. For instance, I’ve been photographing the Day of the Dead ceremonies in Oaxaca for the last twelve years of my life. Just think for a moment…for twelve years I’ve had the health, the students, the energy, the desire, and the time to go to Oaxaca to photograph–apparently, but of course that is not the case–the same celebration. Every time I go, I get to photograph different nuances. Eventually, if I’m lucky enough, other books of my workshop work will come out. From Brazil, from Peru, from Oaxaca, from Sicily…the few places where I return like a stubborn mule over and over again. Why do I do that? First, because I’m aware of the fact that, unlike in Cuba, I’m no longer living in a place where I can tell my wife, “Okay, I’m going to get lost, like in Havana, for a few hours.” I can’t do that where I’m living in Veracruz, unfortunately. But by returning to the same places, I’m giving myself the chance to probe something deeper, not to make very superficial images where you can sense that the photographer, at best, has only spent a few months with the subjects.

I can tell that the idea of mentorship is important to you. Are there any students of yours that we should look at?

Of course, as I said, most of my students are completely unknown. They mostly don’t even have a webpage. The one example that has made an amazing career, and he’s only–what–twenty-eight? Sebastian Liste, you should look at his work. Let me tell you the story.

We met in Perpignan during the festival in 2008. At the time he was maybe 22 or 23. He says, “Ernesto, I’ve been dying to come to your workshops, and I’m hoping to come this Decemeber to Brazil with you.” I say “Fine,” and finally he did come and we had a workshop. I took him and the other students to this place, the ex-chocolate factory. Then at the end of the workshop, he told me, “Ernesto, thank you very much, but I feel like I need more mentoring. I’ll come back in ten days.” So he came back to take a second workshop with me in Bahia, Brazil. He did a second workshop with me and then, from the pictures from the two workshops, he realized that he wanted to spend much more time with this group of people in Salvador. So he came back by himself and he stayed in this chocolate factory photographing daily life of the people living in this place for three months. He has won all of the possible contests that you can name. He just won the Alexia Foundation [grant]. And I just spoke with him…he’s actually staying in my house in Brooklyn. This is the type of relationship I want to make.

When I was in the midst of preparing Al Campo, even though he had almost no money, he said he wanted to contribute the $1000 to get the limited edition. It took him a long time to get the money together, but he did. That’s the type of relationship that I’m building.

I like to go out with my students during the workshops. I’m not afraid of sharing what I’m seeing or of sharing my subjects. Just the opposite. I want them to get to know my subjects. I want them to take pictures. Some photographers are very jealous of that. That’s the unique way of teaching that I do.

I became a photographer thanks to a dream when I was seventeen. I had no clue at the time, as a high school student, what my life was going to be like. No one else but me has to believe that I had this dream. What I find most uncanny about this is not just the dream itself, which is pretty uncanny, is that the next morning I remembered the dream, that the voice told me “You’ve got to be a photographer.” I remembered those words and, having no idea of what being a photographer would be like, I went to my parents and told them what I was going to do with my life. Now, I’m happy that 35 years later, or even more than 35, I’m still following the dream.

Teaching has been another revelation that I have received. I don’t want to sound like a preacher, and I don’t have to convince anybody, because I know that is the way that it is. I know that, for whatever reason, I was chosen to become a photographer and that is becoming more and apparent as the years go by. That’s all I need to say.

Do you still dream about photography?

Do you mean about the pictures that I would like to take? No, no…no I just get ideas. They don’t come in dreams anymore. They come in ideas, like the idea of self-publishing. That came to me because I was disappointed with the previous experience in publishing that I had. I just said, “Let’s try to self-publish” and look at all the things that have happened. I’m just following my path.

Most recently, I just had a…vision, if you will…now, even though I’ve been photographing acts of faith for many years, during processions or celebrations, I’m being asked to walk and to follow pilgrims for three, four, five, or even more days, to a sacred holy place. This energy would like for me to show my faith by walking with the pilgrims.

I recently taught a workshop in Mexico City about the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron. We spent ten days in Mexico City working. On my way there, by bus, we ran into some pilgrims walking. I saw them at a glance, maybe ten seconds, and my immediate gut reaction was to get off the bus and to be with them. Last year I was not able to do that. This year, even if it would just be me and not a workshop, I’m going to join in with the people. I don’t even know where I’m going to sleep, but I know for a fact that I’m going to walk with them. Because in those ten seconds, I saw myriad photographs. I saw so many incredible… I could only [photograph] this level of faith by walking with them, not just by arriving by bus to Mexico City and photographing them in front of the Basilica. In order to show my faith, to keep capturing faith, I need to sleep [in the same places as the pilgrims]. I need to feel the cold. I need to feel the tiredness of walking with them, not know where I’m going to sleep or eat. That’s the latest revelation, if you will.

One day, God willing, I might have a book on faith, because that’s how the whole thing began. You don’t have to go to church everyday, you don’t have to believe. But I know it’s not just by chance that I was chosen. One day, if I’m going to do a book on faith or spirituality, I need to show a much more profound faith [in my pictures] which is only seen when people are willing to put themselves on the line and forget everything else and do this long trek.

Do you share the work that you make, or the work that your students make, with the subjects of your work?

Yes, we do. Usually, when we can, we bring pictures back to the people we photograph. Sebastian did that. Other students do that. We brought pictures back to a lot of the people we photographed in Bahia in Brazil, where I’ve been photographing for the last seven years. In a few weeks, four of my students who went to my workshop in Sicily will be opening a show in Palermo of the pictures that they took of Easter celebrations in Sicily. I’m the curator of the show, and my work won’t be in it.

And we try to share with the people. Lately, what we’ve been sharing besides pictures, is to really give something back. You know, we run into people that really open up their houses and open up their entire lives to us in such a gracious way. Now, more than ever, I tell all my students, “Okay, we’ve had an amazing day. Let’s just give some money to the head of the family.” When this person receives this money, it’s like a gift from God, it’s just so powerful. As soon as we give this money, it never fails, a hundred photographic situations more start appearing before our eyes. The more you give, the more you get back.

I’m surprised to hear that. A lot of people have trouble with people paying for photography. Is that an issue for you? [MSB: see this recent discussion on Feature Shoot about paying subjects for portraits]

No, it’s not an issue. Most of the time [the people] don’t ask for anything. We feel the urge. We feel the necessity to give back because they’ve given us so much. I don’t like when people ask [for money] in a very agressive way. When that happens, I don’t give any money. But when I’m invited inside somebody’s house, and we are their sacred guests, they do anything to make us feel at home, including giving us a cup of coffee or some fruit that they just picked. They don’t expect anything back, and you see and sense that, then we give back big time. Big time. I mean, it’s not much money to us, but for them, receiving twenty dollars when their monthly salary is half of that… It doesn’t matter. They feel very blessed, as we feel blessed.

How can someone pre-order your book?

Today I launched a kickstarter campaign to complete the funding of ISLA.

Thanks for your time, Ernesto.

2 Responses to “In conversation with Ernesto Bazan about his life and his new book ISLA”

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