Exhibition Review: Ernesto Bazan's Cuba 1992-2016 at The Half King Photography Series
Article by Kathryn Kearney
Dreams have always played a major role in Ernesto Bazan’s career. Bazan, the only Italian photographer to shoot the Cuban army during the country’s most difficult times, sat down with Jon Lee Anderson, staff writer for the New York Times on Tuesday night, June 29th at the Half King Photography Series to discuss the years that Bazan and his family spent in Cuba from 1992 to 2016.
Bazan started out his conversation with Anderson by posing the question, “How many times do we have dreams and how many times do we really act on them?” And then went on to say that he barely finished high school, but left with one objective in mind— to find his passion and fulfill it as a lifestyle. On a summer night in 1977, Bazan said he “received a text message from the sky” to take pictures for the next forty years and to enjoy.
In 1979, Bazan was encouraged by his father to move from the city of Palermo, Sicily to New York to attend college. He enrolled in the School of Visual Arts and while living in the city, he grew interested in Cuban culture. He began researching and planned his first trip to the island in the fall of 1992. Upon his arrival, he immediately immersed himself in the culture. He was “transfixed” by getting lost everyday and felt moved by the great sense of generosity of the people he met every day.
During the conversation, Anderson’s statement that “life is in the street there. Life is lived how it was half a century ago” spoke to the way Bazan captures this way of living through his photographs in his three books that were sold at the event. The first book, Bazan Cuba (2008), featured photos shot in black and white, encompassing the simple ideals of the people there—share what you have with those who need it most. The idea to shoot his second book, Al Campo (2011), in color stemmed from a challenge Bazan received from one of his friends at the ICP. He thoroughly enjoyed this task as it forced him to approach photography in a much different way. His most recent book, Isla (2014) was shot with a panoramic camera. Throughout the conversation, photographs from each book were displayed on a projection screen behind the men.
For most of his career though, Bazan shot his photos in black and white. While residing in Cuba, he experienced the adverse effects of the Special Period spanning from 1989 to 2006. His efforts have always been directed towards capturing the moment. From 1992 to 1997, he worked as a freelance photographer for magazines in Cuba then realized he needed to ask the government for permission in order to continue photographing the people there. Bazan received some extraordinary jobs over the years, but the defining moment in his career took place when he was asked to incorporate women soldiers while photographing the Cuban army.
After living on the island for fourteen years, he met his wife, formed long-standing relationships with friends that helped him to realize that he is a “graphic poet” and raised his two twin sons. He began teaching photography workshops at the turn of the century, but this proved to be a turning point for his professional work.
On July 4th, 2006, Bazan faced a run-in with authorities that forever changed the course of his life. Police came to his home, took him to the police station then asked if he had been teaching journalism classes. He informed them that he hosted a few photography workshops, a concept different enough from journalism, but that was reason enough for the police to begin threatening him. They said if he continued to teach these classes, his Cuban family would be in danger. If he wanted to carry on his career as a photographer and prevent his wife and two sons from getting hurt, he would then have to leave the country. And that’s just what he did.
Anderson asked why he chose to comply with the police and Bazan’s response reads as follows: “the profound answer to that is that I wanted to give my family the freedom that we have in the United States. I did not want a dictator to constrain us in any way, shape or form.” Bazan and his wife then made the executive decision to move to Mexico instead of the United States so the transition would not be as great of a culture shock for their two sons.
For years, the photographs he released captured the essence of pain experienced by those living in this advanced state of dissolution on a day to day basis. He focused on people and the way they went about their daily lives in order to direct attention away from the economic crisis the country was plagued by. He struggled with the fact that he was unable to see many of the humble people he formed close bonds with over the years, but referred back to his photos to remember.
On July 14th, 2016, “Bastille’s Day,” Bazan returned to an unchanged Cuba. Anderson prompted Bazan to discuss his thoughts regarding the community where he once lived, not changing. Although there was a tone of sadness in his voice when he addressed this fact, it is evident that Bazan still has hope for Cuba. “There is something in my energy that keeps me going back. I don’t want to stop and I don’t think I ever will.”