Elizabeth Opalenik is one of the lead photographers with Santa Fe Photographic Workshops Cuba Program. Her passion for photographing dance, as well as the unique and authentic, has made Cuba a perfect fit for her talents. We talked with Elizabeth about her Cuban experiences thus far.
When was the first time you went to Cuba?
I went to Cuba for the first time in 2012, and I’ve gone a couple of weeks so far this year. I’m very lucky to do these trip, especially now. I can already see how much Cuba is changing; they’re starting to fix up certain buildings, that kind of thing. We know that it will continue to shift, so it’s great to be part of the group and see Cuba as it has been.
What did you expect to find when you went there?
I went with a very open mind. I’ve done a lot of traveling as a photographer, so I was prepared for most anything. When I first got there, I was impressed by the resourcefulness of the Cuban people, especially with how they made use of everything. We can all learn from that. And the people are also incredibly kind. I have felt safer there than in the States in some places. I’m also always impressed with how clean Cuba is—people are always out sweeping the streets, cleaning up in front of their places—there’s no garbage. I also love the old buildings, the decay. I sort of wish the world could stay decayed, but safe. Leave the façade and fix the interior.
What makes Cuba special for photographers?
The fact that it’s like a time capsule. Today, when you can get anywhere in the world so easily, we have to go further and further to find the time capsules. In Cuba most of the people you’re relating to have one or two fuzzy TV channels; they just don’t have the same access. And that [lack of access] is interesting to me. As we get older, many of us are looking back to find something that looks unique and authentic.
As a photographer, you focus on dance. How did that play out in Cuba?
I love working with dance, the feeling, the movement of it. And Cubans love to move! The dancers [there] work under extreme conditions, working out in the streets, in little plazas. Dance is made accessible for everybody in Cuba, I love that. I went to a ballet school for young children and it was packed! On weekends you always see dance events happening on the street. People get out to enjoy it- adults, kids, teenagers with red lipstick and flowers in their hair, running to do a performance. It’s so fun to watch them and be a part of that, to be part of more intimate moments rather than just being in an audience.
How do you capture that intimacy?
Getting to know the dancers is very important, but also tapping into our own stories; we’re interested in it because it’s in ourselves. You see the world as you are, not as it is. Everyone views it through their own set of eyes. On this next trip I want to take the dancers out of their regular spaces into other locations and work with them in those spaces. My goal for the program is to be out there with them.
Have you developed any relationships with dancers in Cuba?
We were watching a performance outside in a plaza, and there was a woman in a bright red shirt. Her name is DeAmi and she would stand up and perform. She was phenomenal. I mean, the sun broke on her every moment sort of a thing. I managed to meet DeAmi after the show, and we’ve since been in touch. I’m hoping that she’ll be there for this trip, but already she’s connecting me to many dancers down there.
Given all the perceived distances between the US and Cuba, what do you think an artist’s role is in the political and cultural exchanges that take place?
I think the artist’s role, especially the photographer, is always documentation. It will always be your point of view, and in a given situation you end up seeking out your own truth. We go as artists, and my objective is to portray what’s there with the most honesty and integrity as I can by sharing and keeping an open mind. I think that what Santa Fe Workshops is putting together is great; it’s really a step in the right direction.
Do you have some favorite images from your last trip to Cuba?
I had an injury and I couldn’t go out with my regular heavy equipment. Also, because it was my first time down there, I really wanted to be more involved with the people. So, for the first time ever, I used my iPhone! For me it was about the portraits and the spontaneity. Incidentally, I took a lot of stuff to give away so that I could elicit reactions. (Hint: if you give a teenage girl some nail polish she’s thrilled!) That was great for portraits. This trip I’ll be more focused on making images.
Did you notice any changes in your participants after the last program?
Absolutely. You always learn something. This year will be fantastic since many of the participants from my last trip will be returning. It’s about sharing and collaborating with like-minded people, and coming away with new ideas.
If you could describe the experience of Cuba in one sentence, what would it be?
It’s an amazing place filled with people who have a lot of integrity.
Join Elizabeth and discover Cuba for yourself.
Dance in Cuba
with Elizabeth Opalenik
January 28 - February 5, 2014