February 18, 2014

Cuba Spotlight: Syl Arena On Traveling Fast and Light

Syl Arena led his first Cuba Cultural Exchange for Santa Fe Photographic Workshops in November, 2013. So began his love affair with Cuba, and his re-discovery of beauty of natural light.

What were your expectations the first time you went to Cuba? 
Though in some way I had no expectations, I did anticipate a time capsule of history, and that I would see an economy and a society that’s struggled under 50 years of the American embargo. 

How did Cuba meet those expectations? 
I found Havana to be a very vibrant, “worn around the edges” kind of city, full of people who seemed to have a great sense of life and living. That surprised me the most. I found that it’s a country of few resources, but despite that they do such great things with what they have. They enjoy being with each other and talking, they don’t have all the distractions we have, which in many ways take us apart instead of bringing us closer together. So those parts really surprised me. In terms of the city itself, it really amazed me. Havana is an architectural treasure trove, with all the historic architecture at the center and more modern Soviet-era developments around the perimeter. It’s an amazing contrast between the Old Caribbean and the modern world.

What makes Cuba special for photographers? 
There are a lot of things. One is the light; the light is crystal clear. Also, Cuba is a treasure trove of people, places, spaces, light and shadows. One of the most challenging things about working down there is going from the intense light of the street to these dark places. We would be going through the street and someone would say, “Hey, come in here!” and we would enter a tenement apartment or a small tienda lit with a single light bulb. That’s a huge contrast. By and large the people were very receptive of being photographed.

How did your group respond to the experience of Cuba last November?
They loved it! For many people who went it was just a photographer’s holiday; go and make photographs, drink rum, and smoke cigars. But for others it was very serious photographic endeavor, taking a series of architectural shots or portraits. It gave them an awareness of a tenacious culture and society. Photographically they are certainly enriched through the challenges we faced. A lot of people came home with amazing photos they could never make here in the United States.

How has Cuba influenced your work? 
Cuba has influenced me in that I’m a guy who has worked with electronic flash for years, but in Cuba is that you travel fast and light, and things happen spontaneously. You don’t have the time to set up lots of gear. It brought me back to natural light photography. I’ve explored natural light more in the last six month than have in the last six years. 

What's the most challenging aspect of working in Cuba?
Going from intense sunlight to deep shadows, continually jumping back and forth, and having to photograph quickly and discreetly with minimal gear in a wide range of circumstances.  Photographically it’s an amazing situation to be in. You definitely practice your people skills. Many Cubans speak English, and one of the things that surprised me is not one of them expressed any anti- American sentiment. They are warm-hearted people. Many have relatives or friends in the United States, and they want to meet and talk with Americans. Cubans are people of pride, in themselves and in their country. Whether you agree or not, they are entitled to their political pride.

What's your favorite image you've made while you were on the island?
One of the things about old Havana is that the buildings are two to three stories high, so one side of the street is really bright and one is in shade, and the one in the sun works like a giant fill card for the shady side. So, we were walking down the streets and there were kids on the shady side of the street on a stoop, beautiful old doorway. I smiled and planted my camera. The boy just stared at me, and then his brother came. I made the image, gave them a handful of pens, and smiled and walked away. The image of the boy on the stoop has timelessness in the way he’s standing and the way he’s looking. It was an amazing experience. 

Given all the gulfs between the United States and Cuba, how do you see the role of artists in the cultural and political exchange? 
One of the things that surprised me about the Cuban photographers was how free they are to do their art. During our gallery and studio tours we saw the whole gamut of documentary style photography to pure artistic photography. Some of those images would cause many people to raise their eyes and think, “Hmm, that’s pretty aggressive art.” It surprised me to see such a wide range of work with the Cubans. They aren’t afraid to make powerful images, they aren’t afraid to push the envelope of what photography is and isn’t as an art form, and they aren’t afraid to show the work in public gallery setting. 

Join Syl and discover the light, the people, the places, the spirit that make Cuba a treasure for photographers.

Picturing Cuba: Havana and Viñales
with Syl Arena
April 15 - April 23, 2014

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