December 5, 2013

Cuba Spotlight: Jock McDonald Talks Tourist Veils and Cultural Bends

Jock McDonald is one of the lead photographers with the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops’ Cuba Program. His upcoming Portrait of Cuba in 2014 will mark his fourth time leading a Cuba trip for The Workshops. Jock first visited Cuba in 1990. Here he talks about how Cuba has changed, and what makes it so special for photographers.

How has Cuba changed in the years you’ve be going?
When I first went in 1990, Cubans were kept separate from the bubble of tourism. There was a lot of suspicion. You could rarely approach people on the street, but if you could, they were magnanimous. Now Cubans are in business with foreigners, buying buildings, putting in studios, carrying cellphones. But, as the Cubans say, “Same game, different face.”

What makes Cuba special for photographers?
I think that culturally there is a strong love of the camera. Cubans are very open and friendly, and they love to be photographed and involved. It’s colonial country, so the architecture is interesting. There is an elegant decay about Cuba and, to top it all off, there is the amazingly long and toffee-colored light that skips off the Gulf of Mexico. 

How has Cuba influenced your work?
The Cubans have influenced my life, not just my work. I’ve learned how friendship is dealt with and what it means to stand by someone, which they’ve done for me and I’ve done for them. My most recent love affair, though, is with the Cuban seas, photographing the waters around Cuba. The waters of the world are our original mother.

What's the most challenging aspect of working in Cuba? 
Having to set things up in advance and then you get there and everything changes. You start building expectations around a scheduled event, and then it suddenly changes, so you go to Plan B or Plan C. One of the things that has really helped in dealing with this challenge is that, through Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, we have built great relationships with people on the inside. 

What's your favorite image you've taken while you were on the island?
A farmer holding the hand of his four-year-old daughter. The daughter is standing up to her knees in mud, holding the rice. To me, it sums up Cuba and farming; these two generations standing on the land, holding onto each other, with the youngest holding the land. 

Given all the gulfs between the United States and Cuba, what is the artist’s role in cultural exchanges?
I think the artist’s role in any exchange is to propose another way of seeing something, at least in the visual arts. The job of the artist is to say, “How about it?” Whenever you have contact between cultures, you’re breaking down stereotypes. The role of a cultural exchange is to break down the barriers. I think that’s happening at a much more accelerated rate than twenty years ago. 

How have the people you’ve guided on these exchanges reacted to the Cuban experience? 
They have reacted in the most positive way. I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s life changing for most people who go. To see poverty and joy at the same time confuses Americans. They can’t imagine that you can have both at the same moment. That experience forces reflection and most people say that they will go back for a second or third trip, which speaks volumes. Cuba is like an onion; it’s a very layered and complicated place monetarily, politically, and culturally. I could sum it up this way: Cuba is a totalitarian dictatorship where I feel more free than in the “free world.” The freedom I feel there is attached to the lack of the busy work that we do in the West. The texting and the phones, and all the stuff that piles up is a lot of baloney at the end of the day. It’s unnecessary and gets in the way of us being with each other. We’re in trouble because of that. So I love to unplug. I call it a technological Shabbat. When I return from Cuba it’s like I have the cultural bends because everyone here wants to go so fast. ‘Why?’, I ask. 

Have you worked with any Cuban photographers?
I know most of them, and working with them is like having an insurance policy, having someone inside helping to facilitate and making me a known quantity. Their work is amazing. There’s this saying that is applies here, “The Cubans do so much with so little, and we do so little with so much.” I’ve been serious photo collector for about 20 years, but now the only photography I collect anymore is Cuban work. It’s of such a high caliber and is so thoughtful and provocative. This sounds harsh, but I’m bored with contemporary western photography. It seems to be repeating itself. The Cubans work is evocative and enticing and engaging. It speaks on a soul intelligence level. 

If you were to sum up your Cuban experience in one sentence, what would it be? 
The Cubans have opened their hearts to me, and let me have a glimpse the deeper waters of the human soul. 

Can you tell us more about Portrait of Cuba?
I think that the word “portrait” can be applied to anything, a child, a building, an ocean. What I always hope will happen is that we’ll get beyond the tourist veil that exists in Cuba. The idea is to get up close with the Cuban experience, using the frame of the portrait. 

Anything you'd like to add?
I really feel like it’s a privilege to work with Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, bringing people in and helping them to see life in a slightly different way. I find that really invigorating. 

Join Jock for his upcoming trip, and discover why Cuba is the place to unplug and rediscover your passion for photography.

with Jock McDonald 
January 21 - January 29, 2014


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