The story of Cuba, told on film

Photographer Raúl Cañibano's Bay Area exhibit comes at a pivotal moment in Cuban history

There are many ways to tell the story of a people. For Cuban photographer Raúl Cañibano, there's no better way than with a camera, some film and his favorite 28-millimeter lens.

Next week, an exhibition of the artist's black-and-white photographs opens at Foothill College. "Raúl Cañibano: Storyteller" draws together images taken over the course of more than 20 years and is the result of an ongoing collaboration between curator and Foothill photography professor Ron Herman and Cañibano, one of Cuba's most celebrated photographers.

By pure chance, Cañibano's first solo exhibition in the Western United States has coincided with a momentous shift in U.S. and Cuban relations, with presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama announcing on Dec. 17 their intention to restore diplomatic relations, followed by the release of 53 American political prisoners from Cuba, confirmed earlier this week. As the 55-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba looks poised to lift, the two countries enter a new era of tentative re-engagement in which the future, though uncertain, looks brighter than the past.

It's against this hopeful backdrop that Cañibano travels to California next week to share and speak about his work. It's an opportune moment for Americans to reflect on images of Cuba and to learn about the country from an artist who has spent his career documenting its people.

The country depicted in Cañibano's black-and-white photographs is not the Cuba Americans think of first: that of scruffy guerrilla fighters Fidel Castro and Che Guevara scowling into the lens or puffing on Cuban cigars.

Born in Havana in 1961, two years after the end of the Cuban Revolution, Cañibano never knew those political struggles firsthand. The Cuba he inherited was a country reeling in the aftermath of a massive upheaval, and the people he has documented over the course of three decades are not revolutionaries; they are children and neighbors, workers and elders. Neither does he tend to turn his lens on the vintage 1950 automobiles and once elegant, now crumbling facades that visitors to Havana find so visually alluring.

Instead, Cañibano's work evidences an insider's eye. His gaze takes in the full range of Cuban life: the city and the countryside, the young and the old, the proud and the vulnerable, the beautiful and the lost. Across all his subjects, Cañibano's gaze is intimate, sometimes humorous and sometimes haunting, but always compassionate. In one image, a bare-chested young boy with worried eyes stands awkwardly against a wall, posing with a lineup of dead rodents. In another, a child uses washing hanging on the line as an eerie disguise. In the city, a young bride wilts in the heat of a power outage as her coterie attends to her; in the country, a man carries the curled body of a crocodile against his chest.

The title of his exhibition, "Storyteller," reflects the way Cañibano sees his role in Cuban society: as a writer of visual stories.

"I practice documentary photography," the artist explained in an email interview earlier this month. (His responses, written in Spanish, were translated by Palo Alto-based photographer and graphic designer Alejandra Chaverri, who collaborated with Herman on this project.)

"I narrate my time and place in a very personal way," Cañibano continued. "I develop photographic essays about a variety of topics. I narrate a history with beginning and end."

To Cañibano, the most interesting stories are those of the ordinary Cuban people.

"I am interested in people as my main topic; their experiences, their surroundings, their customs and traditions," he wrote.

In his series "Chronicles of the City," Cañibano tells the stories of urban Cubans. In "Guajira's Land," he draws close to those who live and work in the countryside, while in "Sunset," he portrays the loneliness of aging with piercing candor. Works from all three series will be on view at Foothill College's KCI Gallery as part of the exhibition, which opens Wednesday, Jan. 21, with a talk by the artist, and runs through March 11. A hardcover book with an introduction by Herman accompanies the exhibition.

Today, Cañibano's work is internationally recognized. "Guajira's Land" won the grand prize in Cuba's National Photography Exhibit in 1999. The following year, Cañibano was one of 11 photographers selected for a major retrospective show at London's National Theatre, "50 Years of Cuban Photography."

Cañibano's artistic success is all the more remarkable given the nearly insurmountable challenges he faced to develop his craft.

As a child, Cañibano had always found photography compelling but had never had the means to pursue his interest. It wasn't until he was in his his mid-20s that a friend lent him a Russian camera to take on a visit to his childhood home of Manatí, on the northern coast of the island. On this trip, he met a schoolteacher who practiced photography as a hobby and showed Cañibano how to develop and print photographs.

"This caused a great impression on me," Cañibano remembered. "When I returned to Havana from this vacation, with the little money I had, I bought the necessary equipment to take and develop photographs. I started shooting weddings and birthday parties and began making money with photography."

Yet it wasn't until he stumbled across a posthumous exhibition of work by Cuban magical realist photographer Alfredo Sarabia that Cañibano was moved to take his camera to the streets and to compose images that captured the Cuban people as he saw them. In his late 30s, he quit his job as a welder in order to pursue his art.

Sadly, only a few images remain from the early years of his career.

In a decidedly less lucky twist of fate than the one that brings him to the states today, Cañibano made the decision to devote himself to photography in the early 1990s, just as socialism collapsed in the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet Union dissolved and Cuba found itself without military, political or economic support. In the ensuing years, known in Cuba as the "special period," the country's economy shrank by nearly 50 percent, trade dwindled and daily essentials grew scarce.

For the budding photographer, this meant supplies like film and photo-processing chemicals were practically nonexistent.

"Cuba stopped receiving photography materials as the economic exchange with East Germany stopped," Cañibano explained. "This made the beginning of my career as a photographer very difficult. I had to work with expired materials and took just a few photographs during this period."

Aside from these daunting technical limitations, there was the question of how to learn the craft of photography. With the country in a state of grave economic crisis and no institute of photography in Cuba to begin with, there were few options available for formal training. Cañibano tried to read technical photography manuals but found them so dry that he turned to studying classic photographs and even paintings, absorbing the fundamentals of composition by example.

It was Cañibano's distinct compositions that first attracted Herman to his work. A Bay Area-based photographer and organizer of international trips for photo enthusiasts since 2001, Herman took his first group to Cuba in 2010, where he met Cañibano and saw his work at Havana's photography museum, the Fototeca de Cuba.

"What attracted me to his work initially were his compositions," said Herman. "I was drawn to his unique sense of framing, often placing subjects on the edge of the picture frame and capturing multiple scenarios going on simultaneously within the same frame."

This talent for combining multiple subjects and capturing an unfolding scene at the most crucial instant recalls the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. The late French photographer was known for images that arrest "The Decisive Moment" when action and composition converge. According to Herman, Cañibano similarly "captures the apex of multiple stories unfolding simultaneously within the same scene, thereby defining 'The Decisive Cuban Moment.'"

Cañibano's use of surprising juxtapositions, his subtle humor and his instinct for compositions that convey what Herman calls the "intoxicating chaos" of Cuba made his art instantly unforgettable to the American photographer.

"His work was so powerful to me," said Herman, "that the images stayed in my mind long after I returned to the U.S."

Cañibano's flair for layering subjects in a single shot is evident in works like "Guarija's Land, Crucecita, 2001," in which a boy and a woman sit sorting beans at a table, while beyond them, a man stands outside playing a violin, his body perfectly outlined by the rough boards that make up the window frame.

In "Sunset, Psychiatric Hospital, Havana, 1998," a male figure in the foreground strides past the lens, his weathered skin and oddly puckered lips grabbing the viewer's attention. Over his shoulder, another figure sits in the distance, head tipped back as if gulping a drink; a third figure appears at the far right edge of the frame, visible only from the ankles down.

It's photos like these that capture Cuba not as a political symbol, a romantic ideal or a national tragedy but as a specific and vivid place where people go about their daily lives. And while Cañibano may capture fleeting moments in his work, it's his long-term studies of communities -- he often returns to the same street or village over the course of months or years -- that allows him the privileged access and trust of his subjects, resulting in remarkably candid images of people going about their lives, unguarded.

In his photographs, Cañibano offers a point of view that is both honest and idiosyncratic, that draws startlingly close to its subjects and yet dignifies them with an air of mystery.

It's a vision of Cuba few outside the country have seen, and fewer still in the U.S.

As Herman noted, America's vision of Cuba has been obscured for more than half a century; this exhibition provides a glimpse of a nation where life goes on in the face of all challenges.

"Cuba and its people have been shrouded in mystery largely due to the embargo," Herman noted. "Cañibano's images provide insight into Cuba, which is largely unknown to many."

As Herman sees it, these images reflect not just the daily reality of life in Cuba but also the spirit of its people.

"I think his photographs can teach Americans about the open-heartedness and resilience of the Cuban people," Herman said. "Despite daunting everyday challenges, Cubans display their warmth and resourcefulness in everything they do."

Resourcefulness and perseverance have been key to Cañibano's success and also to Herman's ongoing collaboration with the Cuban artist. Since 2001, Herman has returned to Cuba four times, an effort that requires authorization by the U.S. Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control and often involves delays while visas are approved, or in some cases, denied.

"Organizing creative collaborations with artists living in Cuba has its challenges," Herman acknowledged. "Communication can be difficult. We are so used to getting immediate responses in the United States because of our access to the Internet and telecommunications. In Cuba, Internet access is limited and unreliable, so sometimes I wait two to three weeks for an email response to a simple question."

Even phone calls and Skype from the U.S. to Cuba are many times more expensive than to any other country, due to the embargo. Still, Herman said, there's no question the effort is worth the opportunity for cultural and creative exchange. His next trip to Cuba is planned for March of this year, with another planned for the end of June. In both cases, he'll be taking a group of Bay Area artists along to meet Cuban photographers and to document the changing country.

Both Herman and Cañibano express hope that these collaborations will continue and that the coming years might ease the process of arranging travel and communication between Cuba and the United States.

Among the many lessons Cuba holds for Americans, Herman thinks, is that of valuing artistic talent and achievement.

"One of Cuba's greatest strengths is the arts," he said. "Unlike most cultures, artists and musicians in Cuba are highly regarded. Many creative professionals in Cuba make more money than doctors and lawyers because they can sell artwork and CDs to tourists and abroad in hard currency, whereas doctors and lawyers are paid the normal Cuban salary of approximately $20/month."

When asked whether he felt visual arts and artists were highly respected in Cuba, Cañibano made it clear he did, and also that respect and money were two distinct issues.

"Yes, of course," he wrote. "Overall we have a great artistic tradition and very good schools. Artists are well-respected, which has nothing to do with the economy."

As for the place of photography in Cuban politics, Cañibano preferred not to comment, although he acknowledged his own reaction to the news of recent weeks.

"I felt very emotional with Obama's speech because I am almost as old as the Revolution," he wrote. "I am very happy with the good relationships between the peoples of the United States and Cuba. The Cuban people are very happy. It is time to sand off the harshness from the past."

Though a warming trend in U.S.-Cuban diplomacy is welcome news in Cuba, such changes are likely to herald a shift in the lives of the Cuban people, both in the cities and in rural regions. That's one of the reasons Cañibano sees his work as a kind of anthropological study.

"My intent is to document a way of life and customs that may be lost with the passage of time," he wrote.

For now, "Raúl Cañibano: Storyteller" offers an intimate and vivid telling of the story of Cuba and its people, frame by astonishing frame.

What: Raúl Cañibano: "Storyteller"

Where: Krause Center for Innovation (KCI) Gallery, Lower Level, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills

When: Jan. 21-March 11. Gallery hours: Monday-Friday 8:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Artist lecture Wednesday, Jan. 21, at 6 p.m. in room 1501, followed by a reception from 7-9 p.m. Gallery talk with curator Ron Herman on Wednesday, March 4, from noon-1 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to RaulCanibano.wordpress.com or call 650-949-7082. To learn more about Ron Herman's organized trips to Cuba, go to HermanPhotoTours.wordpress.com.

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