October 30, 2013

Spotlight on Cuba: Tony Bonanno Paints a Picture

Tony Bonanno is one of the lead photographers with Santa Fe Photographic Workshops Cuba Program. His upcoming trips in 2014 will mark his fourth year leading trips to Cuba for The Workshops. Tony has felt an affinity for Cuba since childhood, and it shows in both his enthusiasm and his work. We talked with Tony about his Cuban experiences thus far.

When was the first time you went to Cuba?
The first time was in 2009, when I had the opportunity to launch a research project about Cuban artists, specifically Cuban photographers. Photography has always had a rich history in Cuba, and I wanted to work on a project where I could meet and discover Cuban photographers. What is their vision, their inspiration? What motivates them, what are they trying to express, and how do they do it? I developed an incredible respect and admiration for the photographers and artists that I met and got to know. And it is extremely helpful working with Nelson Ramirez of Fototeca de Cuba in Havana. That opened so many doors, getting to know that group and being a part of their impromptu salons in the hotels. In those salons you could meet the artists, and the artists would sell to those few Americans who were visiting, make some money and keep their art alive. One thing that distinguishes Cuban culture is the value and emphasis they place on art, dance, and music. You can’t help but be impressed. It’s such an important part of their lives and culture.

What were your expectations? 
I didn’t know what to expect. To be honest, it was a little scary since I didn’t know anything except what I saw here in the United States. Would I be watched? Or unwelcome because I was an American? Here was a country where people were struggling, would they take it out on me? (laughs) What I found was that everyone was incredibly gracious, incredibly warm, curious, and very pleased to meet me and talk with me. I learned very quickly that for the most part, the Cuban culture has close affinity with us. They like America and Americans, and many have relatives here. They were as gracious and as warm and as receptive as anyone could hope for.

How have the groups you've led responded to the Cuban experience?
When you go to Cuba with one of our programs you come back a changed person. It’s a very enriching experience, and you come away with a whole different idea about Cuba and the Cuban people, as well as your approach to photography. Our programs are people-to-people cultural exchanges and we go with the intent to learn about the Cuban people, to engage them. Our cameras and our passion for photography are the vehicles. We engage the Cuban people through our lens.

What makes Cuba special for photographers?
The subject matter is tremendous. Cuba is a country that’s been off limits for decades, and it’s relatively undiscovered and still frozen in time. Visually it’s like stepping back sixty years or more. There’s so much to take in and absorb—the food, the architecture, the kids playing stickball (baseball rules in Cuba) and diving off the piers, the tobacco fields. You have this amazing culture set against a backdrop of the old colonial cities.

And photography in Cuba is not a commercial or professional venture in the way we think of it here. In Cuba, it’s art, plain and simple. The work is beautiful, very high standard. How they do it without the modern equipment we have here, the stuff we take for granted, really impresses me.

Have these trips to Cuba influenced your work?
Absolutely. My work is definitely stronger now than five years ago in many ways. With Cuba, that’s to be expected because it’s so visually stimulating it gets your creative juices flowing. For a long time I specialized in editorial and corporate events. I was working for clients and they had requirements that I had to meet. Working in Cuba is completely different, and it has freed me up so much. You’re constantly challenged to up your game and hone your skills as a visual artist. You have to ask, does this photograph evoke what I want it to? How am I responding to the composition? What does it make me feel? It’s fantastic.

What's the most challenging aspect of working in Cuba?
You’re immersed in so much that you have to define your subject matter. Maybe it’s the kids playing stickball, the old buildings, the music, the dance—there are many themes and subjects and one of the challenges for all of us is that we want to do it all! I think the first trip you get a flavor of it all, and on subsequent trips you want to find something you have a strong connection to. 

Also, you have to be flexible. Our programs are not a pre-packaged kind of thing. It’s a photographic adventure in an incredible country that up until the last few years has been inaccessible. Sometimes we find opportunities that we can engage in something that was better than anything we could have imagine. Like the day we got to go backstage during a ballet practice and photograph. Obviously that was not on the agenda!

Do you have a favorite image you have made in Cuba? 
Here are three images that I like, and you can see more at www.cubafotografo.com.

If you were to sum up your Cuban experience in one sentence, what would it be? 
Cuba: a lovely island, long isolated, very beautiful, with an incredibly strong spirit that defines the Cuban people.

Join Tony on one of his upcoming trips, and experience why Cuba is the photographic adventure of a lifetime.

with Tony Bonanno
January 21 - January 29, 2014

with Tony Bonanno
January 28 - February 5, 2014

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