With an eclectic body of enriching, honest and deeply committed work, one can only admire the talent that is Ernesto Bazan. Working as an insider, as opposed to an observer, enables Bazan to display the candid truth. In this conversation, Bazan speaks of the factors and inspirations that led to him becoming a photographer, the pleasure he draws from being a teacher, as also his unique relationship with Cuba and its people.
What role does Cuba play in your journey as a photographer? Who is Ernesto Bazan before Cuba and after Cuba?
Cuba is a very important part of my destiny. I didn’t know it then, when I first went to Cuba, but as the years went by its role in my career became clear. In Cuba, my life changed both on a personal level and also on a professional one, because in Cuba I met my future wife, my life companion, and we had twin boys, which was another amazing gift. Thanks to my Cuban pictures I’ve had the privilege to win important prizes like the W. Eugene Smith Award in New York, the Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize, and the Guggenheim fellowship, among others. So for me it was like I was meant to be there. I like to believe that I must have lived there in another life, like those people who believe in reincarnation. I never felt so connected to a place and to a people ever before and never after that either.
© Ernesto Bazan
You often say that you have had a great childhood. You’ve said that your mother has been a great source of inspiration, and that you get your creativity from her and your persistency and determination from your dad. Your grandparents also played an important role in your upbringing. Can you please share with us something about your childhood in Sicily?
Sure. When I hear stories of other photographers’ backgrounds, I hear unfortunate horror stories of abuse, separated parents, negative things. Luckily for me I had a simple but happy childhood. Not only have I had good parents but as you said my maternal grandmother in particular played a major role in my life because both my parents were working. She would take care of me, from picking me up from home and taking me to school every morning, then picking me up from school and bringing me back to her place, and fixing lunch for me. As I was very skinny, she’d feel bad that maybe she wasn’t feeding me enough! She would take me to the pastry shop just below the building where she used to live and almost every afternoon she would treat me to a pastry of my choice.
The most important thing that she did – going back to the photographic aspect of how my childhood – was that she would take me, not every day because it was far, to this grand old open air market in the old part of Palermo. She would hold my hand and we would walk around taking in the incredible, beautiful displays of fish, vegetables and fruits, almost anything. All the vendors would be yelling out what they were selling. Arab communities have been living in Sicily for over 200 years. That has heavily influenced our markets, because once I started travelling and I went to North Africa, I was really surprised to see how similar the markets were and also the way vendors were shouting out announcing their products, just like in Sicily. I felt I was being exposed to the most ancient part of our culture, the old Palermo, the Palermo that had been there for centuries. A few years later when a relative introduced me to photography, he started taking me for walks inside that beautiful old part of Palermo. There was an immediate connect, and I immediately remembered those first outings with my grandmother as a little boy.
She also let you play soccer during those days…
That’s right, that’s what I wanted to do. Let me tell you how I became a photographer in the first place. I used to play soccer every afternoon – I really loved playing soccer and I wasn’t a very good student; I was an average student. I never failed but I was never really interested in learning. I remember that when my parents sent me to England to learn English, all I did was to go out with British girls. I mean that’s the best way to learn a language, right? Then I came to New York and I finally started studying seriously.
© Ernesto Bazan
That was a very smart way of learning English!
That’s the best way to learn a language; that’s how I also learnt Spanish. As I said, I wanted to play soccer. I was an average superficial student but just before graduating from high school, I heard God’s voice telling me, whispering into my ear in my sleep a few simple words: You got to be a photographer. What I find amazing about the dream is not the dream itself, but the fact that I remembered that dream that morning when I woke up. I got up from the bed and went straight to my parents as if I was guided, like a robot, and I said to them, “I’m going to become a photographer”. I can tell you that 35 years later I am still following the dream, which I also believe was not a dream but a revelation. This was the first revelation that I received; there have been other revelations since then.
This happened when you were 14?
Was that the time when you got your first camera?
I got my first camera when I was 14. In the beginning I was just playing with the camera. Then this relative of mine took me under his wing and he started showing me the old part of Palermo. This time I had a camera with me and I started taking my first pictures. He showed me the entire black and white process, which I got completely fascinated with. But until I was 17, my pictures were okay; there was nothing special. That’s what makes the revelatory dream even more special.
© Ernesto Bazan
Were all those pictures of the market that you used to go to. What were they about?
I began by taking pictures of my family. Go to my web page, look under the section titled ‘Books’, and you’ll find a book there called ‘The First 20 Years’. In that catalogue, you can see my early beginnings as a photographer. I mean the pictures of my mother – there is a beautiful portrait of her – and then there are pictures of my brothers, my grandparents. I started photographing daily life. I was fascinated with musical bands and photographed them. In fact when I went to India for the first time in 1983, I found the same beautiful, simple musical bands there too and took some pictures of them. Some of them are so alike!
I am sure this would have happened even in Italy, where musicians would play on the streets and you could listen to them without putting in the extra effort to go for their concerts.
Right, it was a different time. You know they were still wearing uniforms, which sometimes they still do, and that I would say was my first small essay on Sicilian musical bands.
© Ernesto Bazan
You came to India in 1983, right?
I convinced my parents that I needed to study photography. I got accepted in the School of Visual Arts in New York. In 1979 I travelled to New York to start my university, a 4-year Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. 1982, the year I graduated, was an amazing year for me because I graduated from the School of Visual Arts, I won the Best Young Photographer prize in Arles, France, and I got accepted into Magnum – one of the youngest photographers to do so. I was 23. Thanks to the prize I won in Arles, I travelled for 7 months across Asia. India was one of the places where I went and enjoyed taking pictures.
India has always fascinated photographers. What fascinated you about India in those days?
The reason I am taking pictures is because of my childhood. I am constantly seeking out my childhood everywhere I go and so the places that interest me the most are ancestral places, places where people are still in touch with themselves, with their own soul, with their own emotions, where they are still attached to their own cultural roots. India is amazing that way, even though I haven’t been back. I was last there in the early 90s. I hear that it is changing tremendously but I also hear that if you move away from the big cities, life in the countryside continues to be the way it used to be.
© Ernesto Bazan
That side is very much intact. People still value relationships but Indian cities are growing really fast. Coming back to your photographic career, how did street photography happen for you?
I have always done street photography. After I was taken to the old Palermo with the camera, I never stopped, and am still quite happy to do so. I just love the idea of capturing people’s lives. There is such a huge palette of emotions and feelings that we have as human beings and I am interested in capturing some of those emotions and feelings in my pictures. I started in Sicily and then I started to expand my horizons. While I was still studying at the School of Visual Arts I travelled to North Africa. I went to Morocco, Tunisia and – along with the Sicilian images – these are my first street photography images. When I was in New York I did some subjects related to New York. I wanted to find out what it meant to be Italian-American in the US, so I started photographing (for over four years) the Italian-American community in Brooklyn, New York and New Jersey. That became my first book ‘The Perpetual Pass’ (1984).
I continued to travel because I became a freelance photographer. I was still working for magazines because I had to make a living. Every time I would go to a place, I would always try to take some time off after taking the picture that I was supposed to be taking for the magazines and go around taking pictures of my own.
The second book was called ‘Passing Through’. It reflects once again my love and passion for daily life, for street photography. It shows through the 70-80 photographs all the various emotions that human beings experience in their daily life.
Was it around then that the Michael Jackson incident happened outside MoMA ?
It wasn’t an incident. And it was at the MET, not the MoMA. He had a party and the agency I was working with at the time, asked me to take some pictures of him coming out of the MET, which I did. I also photographed Dustin Hoffman’s daughter’s birthday party at a private discotheque in New York. I photographed furniture; I did some weddings. As the years went by, my career as an editorial and travel photographer developed. I would get assignments from magazines. I would get to go to interesting places. I would do my assignment work in colour most of the time. The moment I stopped working on the assignment, I’d start taking some pictures in black and white, which were all meant for my own personal project.
© Ernesto Bazan
You were in and out of Cuba between 1992 and 1997, and in 1998 you got married to your life companion. How did this impact on your photographic process?
Foreign photographers usually travel to foreign destinations to follow foreign people and then if they like it they spend a couple of weeks, maybe a few months, some of them spend a few years at most. But then they get out and go back home. That’s what I had been doing in Cuba until then. After I got married, and once my wife got pregnant, it was clear that I had to be there, move there. As Vicki Goldberg wrote brilliantly in the afterword to my book ‘Bazan Cuba’: “Ernesto was no longer a stranger looking in from the outside; he was not parachuting himself in and out of Cuba. He was an insider.” That really tilted the scale in my work and made it much more intimate and profound. I also show a Cuba that very few photographers are willing to show, which is far away from the stereotypes of happy people smoking cigars and driving American cars. I show the reality from within. These people –like the farmers – became my friends, so it became a much more intimate project. The major difference between what I have been doing in Cuba and what other photographers are doing in Cuba is that none of them have the experience that I have had.
I agree with you. Was Cuba a totally different experience for you, coming as you did from a different culture, language and political situation? You’ve mentioned that you were terrified of the mafia scene, which was always there in the attitude of the Sicilian people. What were the biggest challenges you faced when you came to Cuba and how did you evolve?
The biggest challenge is to get access to places that the government controls tightly. I was lucky enough to become what they call a ‘foreign correspondent’ in Cuba, which is not easy. Once I had that accreditation it became a little easier. It helped facilitate things.
This was in 1998. As a foreign correspondent I had permission to buy a car. I had a telephone line that I could also use to call out of Cuba, which not many Cubans are allowed to do, except, of course, the ones in power. I had access to the Internet and email, even though my emails were vetted and my conversations were eavesdropped on constantly. So all of that facilitated my way of moving around Cuba. In the year 2000, after 8 years of working in Cuba, I felt that in order to tell a more compelling story I had to ask the government for permission to access their schools, some of the factories and sugar mills, the military and a long list of places that I wanted to go to. To my great surprise I got the green light a few days later. They said it was okay for me to do whatever I wanted to, I just had to let them know. So from 2000 (till about 2002) onwards I was given access to the military, which is very difficult to access. I spent a week with the Cuban army. Some of those pictures are in my first book. Then I went inside sugar mills, which were and are still falling apart because of the lack of maintenance. And I was photographing the sugarcane quarters, which were difficult to photograph without permission. The government wasn’t comfortable giving this permission because they didn’t want to have bad propaganda about the way the workers were treated. I went inside schools too. It was a good break for me because I was able to expand the boundaries of my project. Some of the pictures ended up in the book ‘Bazan Cuba’.
That’s very interesting because as you said not many people were lucky to get that access, right?
Right, but then my luck ran out.
© Ernesto Bazan
When it happened I felt very bad but looked at in hindsight I think it was a blessing in disguise. By 2002 I’d grown bored with editorial photography because I was not happy with the kind of assignments that I was getting. I was dissatisfied and so once again the spiritual energy came into play. This time it was the revelation (and it didn’t come in a dream!): ‘Why don’t you become a teacher?’ I had never been a teacher before and didn’t know how I was going to get my students. Anyway bit-by-bit it all started to come in to play. A friend made a webpage for me so that I could start advertising the workshops.
Starting my own workshop has been one of the most important things in my life. It changed my professional life completely. On January 6, 2006, I was asked to go to a police station near my house. I was told: ‘We heard that you have been teaching a journalistic workshop.’ I said, no, they are not journalistic, they are photographic! The immigration guy was very angry; he replied: “I don’t care. If you teach another workshop, your Cuban family will be in trouble.” Once you are threatened like that the only thing you can do is to say that, okay, I won’t teach anymore but I’m getting the fuck out of here because nobody can tell me what to do in my life. I was born in a free country and I will continue to do my work, which I still do. So we left Cuba.
After that you shifted base to Mexico, right?
From there we moved to Mexico and we still live in Mexico. It’s been great. I miss going to Cuba because I cannot go there anymore. I became persona non grata. But I don’t care. Most of my work is now concentrated in microcosms spread out in Latin America where I teach my workshops, namely Oaxaca, Mexico, during the Day of the Dead. I have been teaching that workshop for 13 years. I have also been teaching in the Sacred Valley near Cuzco (in Peru) for 13 years. I’ve been teaching in Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon for 7 years and for the same period in Bahia, Brazil, which I like to call my new Cuba. In addition to this I’ve returned to Sicily to photograph the Easter parade and the Easter celebrations.
Thanks to my workshop I return every year to help my students with their pictures but, at the same time, I am taking my own photographs and the work is slowly building up to maybe another book project.
© Ernesto Bazan
You have said of your workshop students: ‘They are my editors, my collectors, my supporters and some of them are my friends’’. You’ve called this intimate relationship that you share with your students a learning experience. Has teaching become one of the most important aspects of your photographic career?
Definitely. The workshops shape the direction in which my work is going. My students have become my supporters, my friends and my collectors. I also learn by watching them take photographs. So it’s been a fruitful and beneficial relationship both for them and for me.
Coming back to your Cuban work, if I may ask, temperamentally what sets your books, Bazan Cuba’ and ‘Al Campo’, apart? What’s the difference between these two books for you personally?
There is a huge difference, besides the fact that one is in black and white and one is in colour. Once I started using colour, I realized my way of looking at life around me was changing dramatically. I started paying attention to almost insignificant things like a broken chair, or a knife on a table and I would find poetry there. With black and white I was mostly interested in capturing people. But with colour and the other camera I started photographing other things. My colour work has been a watershed in my photographic vision because after I did the colour work, after I did the book, I realized what I was capable of doing. It was an important lesson. Off late I have been photographing plenty of still lifes, landscapes and portraits in black & white.
The other thing, which is important to note, is that the way I went about shooting also changed by working in the countryside. Why? Because I felt that I was not photographing strangers anymore, I was photographing friends, my Cuban friends. We spent time on creating some kind of a ritual meaning. Like I wouldn’t just arrive and start taking pictures. I would always arrive carrying a bottle of good Cuban Rum that they couldn’t afford and after opening the bottle, we would give some to the spirits of the Earth. We would start drinking, sipping little glasses full of rum and then invariably my friend Fidel Rodriguez would ask me “Ernesto would you like for me to roll out a cigar for you?” and even though I have never been a smoker I would always say, “Sure do that”, and so after all of that, eventually and maybe, I would start taking pictures. So now when I am photographing, especially places I have been going back for 12 years or more, people recognize me. I am no longer photographing strangers and I like the sense of intimacy.
This is very different from what I used to be doing when I was living in Havana, where I would just get out and get lost in the city or get into my car and drive off to see a farmer’s friend. Nowadays I try to get underneath the surface of things, try to take more revealing and intimate pictures by going back to the same location over and over again, like a stubborn mule. People have started recognizing me. In Brazil for instance I have been photographing inside what used to be a landless movement camp . The people have now become the owners of the place and all the children know me so well! It’s not like I arrive and immediately start photographing strangers. I go there and all the children hug me, they take me by my hand and they take me around. In the midst of all of this my students and I try to take pictures.
© Ernesto Bazan
That’s something I respect because it’s not only about documenting; it’s a much more intimate relationship that you have with the people you photograph.
Yeah, that’s what I want to do. I will tell you a beautiful story and then if you want I will send you my newsletter so that you will also have it in writing. It is very important in life to give, and every time you give you get back ten times more of what you have given. A few months ago, just before my Easter workshop started in Sicily, one of my students, Raphael, from Spain, wrote me a very moving email. I cried over the things he wrote and I read it to my wife. He asked me if I could send him the price information for my ‘Easter in Sicily’ workshop, which I did. A few days later he replied to me and said, “Ernesto, I am afraid I can’t afford your workshop, not because it’s too expensive – in fact it’s worth every penny – but I just don’t have enough money, maybe I will come next year.’ I thought for a moment after receiving the email and an inner voice told me: ‘You have to help him. Make sure that he comes.’ So I talked to my wife and my wife said, “Yes”. I shaved off $1000 from the workshop fees and I said: “Listen, if I take 1000 off can you come?” He said: “Sure I can come but I don’t want you to do that.” In the end I had to convince him to come. But I told him let’s keep it between the two of us, don’t share it with the other 10 students, otherwise everybody is going to ask me for a discount. So that was agreed upon and he arrived and I was very happy to see him.
On the first day of the workshop I review all my student’s work, especially if they are new students; I need to see what level they are at. When it was time to share the images with everyone, the other students were so impressed by how powerful his images were, one of them kept saying, “Let’s buy some prints from Raphael, so that he can make some money and do some travelling.” I didn’t say anything. Another guy said: “Why don’t we also help him to organize a show?” Then all of a sudden another guy said: “Ernesto why don’t we try to establish a scholarship fund so that Raphael and other students for years to come can come and take your workshop completely for free.” I said, “Yes, that’s a beautiful idea.” So we got together without him, just a few of us, and it’s my pleasure to tell you that we have already funded the first scholarship for Raphael to return to Sicily next year. We are also working on establishing a scholarship fund that will allow two talented students under the age of 31 to apply. If their work is good then the tuition for the workshop, which is $3000 for 10 days, will be made completely free.
Please tell your young readership, as well as photographers in India, that there is a possibility of coming to study with me for free.
I will for sure. Many congratulations…
Thank you. So what does it tell me? I’m almost 54. The spiritual presence in my life wants me to start giving back to my students, giving them more, meaning really helping them financially. I am so happy…remember it all started with a secret; I was not intended to share it with anybody but, in the end, the fact that I was generous with him paid back in such a beautiful way.
© Ernesto Bazan
Thank you for sharing that experience. I am glad that something so positive has come out of it. Another thing I wanted to ask you was that you joined Magnum at the age of 23, and at that time you were the youngest. But you have also said how mean, destructive and petty human beings can be. For example when I interviewed Antoine D’Agata, he said that there were times when the agency came between him and his photography. Did you ever experience something like that? Why did you quit Magnum?
I won’t go into the specific details because it is worthless. Thanks to my students and my family, I have two beautiful families, my own and the one that I have created where there is nurturing & support of one another. I was only in Magnum for two years. They were stabbing me in the back constantly. Why? Because I was young, because I was talented. What kind of a family is that? I would describe it as a dysfunctional family and I have no interest in playing a part in anything like that. What Antoine D’Agata told you is just one of the many horror stories that you’ll hear about the agency. I mean I respect and am friends with some of their photographers. I was with Koudelka, just a few days ago at a photo festival here in the United States. It was beautiful. We spent half an hour talking and he signed my copy of his book of on gypsies at Look 3, which came out in 1970s.
My last question: Recently, the MOMA curator Quentin Bajac said that African, Latin American and Japanese photography deserves a lot more attention than what it gets right now. As someone who has seen that happen and evolve, also as someone who is playing a very important role by having workshops and producing work from that part of the world, what do you have to say about this?
I completely agree. Some of the most riveting, interesting work is coming out of from Latin America and also Asia. Even though I am a European and an Italian citizen, I feel completely at home in Latin America, that’s why I am living in Mexico. This year I might become a citizen of Mexico and I might take up the opportunity. The thing with Latin America, Africa and Asia is that even though they are all trying to play catch up and become industrialized nations, what they have going for them is that they are still very much in touch with their ancient past, much more so than people in Europe or in the United States. That’s what photography is all about: trying to capture through images what’s inside of you, trying to find out if you’re a human being in touch with your soul, with your emotions, also your own people, your culture, your country. I hope MoMA and other museums and curators will pay more attention to Latin American, African and Asian work because there they have a lot of untapped potential still.
Bazancuba Book Cover
Photography Interviewed by Manik Katyal