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.]