Ernesto Bazan was born in Palermo in 1959. At a very young age he realizes he wants to make a living out of photography, and his determination leads him to specialize at the School of Visual Arts of New York. He is part of Magnum Photos for a short while.
Struck by the isle of Cuba, he spends 14 years there documenting the so-called "Periodo Especial" and obtaining the permit to photograph soldiers, sugar production, and the healthcare and education systems. During his stay, he captures the everyday life of people, thus building up a bulk of photographs that will be collected in a trilogy dedicated to the island. Over the years, he has exhibited and gained numerous awards all over the world.
In this interview, Bazan tells us about his work, the particular bonds between his life and photography, and the Cuban years that have marked his personal and professional path so deeply.
We would like to begin with the places of your life: Sicily, Cuba, Mexico, the US. You’ve taken pictures of them by following your particular vision and creating subtle connections between such removed and different places. Could you tell us about it?
I deeply believe in destiny and I feel like each of the places I’ve lived in has played a major role in my life and my photographic development.
Sicily, the island where I saw and felt the light for the first time. My whole photographic journey began there like a dream, which led me firstly to Manhattan, another island where I officially became a photographer, and then to Cuba, yet another island. I was doomed to land there, and it changed my life completely. There I met my life partner, our twins Pietro and Stefano were born there. I dipped into a unique journey for 14 years, which allowed for the creation of this unhoped-for trilogy. It only took me 14 years of shooting and 8 of production - for a grand total of 22 years. Whenever I think about it, I often find myself breathless!
Then came the micro-cosmos of Latin America, including Brazil, Peru and Mexico, where I’ve been returning to for years, as stubbornly as a mule - and I wish for these [shootings] to turn into new books in the future.
The three volumes you have released about Cuba - Bazan Cuba, Al Campo and Isla - are distinct works, yet part of the images were shot simultaneously. Did you already have this trilogy in mind or did you follow an instinct that then resolved into the final direction?
All of my work is born instinctively and resolves to spontaneity. I find a place that interests me and I’ll dive into this reality without worrying about coming back to the surface or which photos I’m going to shoot.
If anybody had told me, upon my arrival to Cuba, that I’d have spent there over a decade and that three volumes would have come up, I’d have smiled with surprise. Between 1992 and 2000 I worked exclusively in black and white and with a reflex camera. In 2001 I was asked to work in color on a project and I was offered a second-hand panoramic camera, which I bought with no hesitation. I started shooting with these three cameras just for the sake of it, without remotely imagining that I was creating three bulks of work.
How did the collective editing process develop for these three volumes?
After having to leave Cuba in 2006, I realized that an important chapter of my life was drawing to an end. At every workshop I would bring along the prints of the soon-to-be first volume, because I deemed them worthy of being shared with my students. At the end of each course, I would show these photos to my students for an opinion. That’s how the editing of my photo-books began and, gradually, more and more students would take part in it. Selecting your own photos is anyone’s Achilles’ heel: we’re too emotionally attached in order to be objective and detached enough. Having so many “eyes” giving their unbiased opinion helps me greatly to being more strict in selecting the sequences for the book. Usually it takes me two years to create the visual structure. It’s an extraordinary and unique way that I’ve slowly managed to create with my students - which adds up to another delicate phase for producing the book: self-funding.
Thanks to the generous participation of a number of students and friends who were up to pre-buying both limited and normal editions of my books, I’ve succeeded in gaining complete editorial independence. We’ve created the BazanPhotos Publishing company together, which is starting to publish the works of my most brilliant students from next year.
Six of them have already been pre-selected. They are intimate and personal works. I’m extremely hopeful that by 2019 there will be at least twelve titles out, comprising my students’ and mine. It will be another dream come true!
The choice of a format influences the viewer’s vision, and you’ve simultaneously used black and white, color and panoramic format. Could you tell us about the different intents and expressive ways that these formats carry, and why you chose them?
I’ve been shooting in black and white since the beginning. I feel like it’s my natural means of expression, which is deeply connected with my inner eye. Al Campo represents my only work in color so far. It revolutionized my way of seeing the outer world. Knowing that I’m using a color film led to the birth of a new consciousness in me. Suddenly, my photographic universe expanded. People were not my primary subject any longer: simple objects, still lives, close-ups and landscapes became a fundamental part of my repertoire. Using a panoramic camera expanded my photographic sensibility even further. Instinctively, I elaborated a new vision that the very tool “forced” me to find. Each camera and the use of color have allowed me to tell of the same place in different hues.
Your photography presents itself as a powerful narration of everyday life. What does narrating through images mean to you?
The more time passes, the more I realize that the everyday moments I capture reveal themselves before my eyes almost by magic. They ask me to be captured - and I try to do so.
Your images build up a narration of people and places, but they are also completely self-sufficient. How important is the fact that photos are simultaneously independent and mutually complimentary?
I’ve always believed that every image must comprise an inner strength of their own in order to be interesting, and this springs out from the right balance between form and content. If either component is absent or prevails over the other, then the photograph is doomed. My books and the future books of my students will never feature complimentary pictures: every photo will have to have their own inner strength.
Some of your photos are extremely intimate, whereas others have a wider perspective. How do you manage the relationship between you and the people you shoot? What kind of relationship commences afterwards?
As I said before, after my Cuban experience with color film and the panoramic format, all my subsequent work in black and white got revolutionized. For my works in Bahia - Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Sicily I’m using several genres simultaneously (landscape, portrait, still life), which are practically absent in my first books: Il Passato Perpetuo, Passing Through and Bazan Cuba.
My current visual narration is based on all the above-mentioned genres, and it becomes more complex and more simple at the same time. Plus, it is surely getting more intimate, considering that I have the opportunity to return to the same place thanks to my workshops. Once I left Cuba in 2006 for good, I realized that the intimacy I’d gained from the inside would have been impossible to replicate in the other microcosms where I was working. Little by little, because I had the chance to make regular comebacks to Bahia, to the Sacred Valley in the Peruvian sierra and the Amazonian area around Iquitos - Peru, Oaxaca during the Dia de los Muertos celebrations, and the faith-triangle of Trapani - Marsala - Buseto Palizzolo during Easter in Sicily, the people I shot started recognizing me. Just like in Cuba, I’m not only photographing strangers off the street for a few seconds, but people with whom I’m starting to share my life. The different approach allows for this level of intimacy that’s becoming more and more inescapable in my work.
A biographical element runs through your photography even when it appears less evidently. How important is your own’s personal story in order to be able to capture the stories of others?
It’s necessary. If it weren’t like this, my photos would be cold and detached. I always say that I am the photographer I am thanks to the fact I was born in Palermo. Had I been born in Trapani, Rome or Aosta, I’d be a different photographer. I can really say that my city and my family have forged me as a person.
Your books have been born out of crowdfunding and self-publishing. What is your opinion on such means of financing and promotion that are growing more and more important in the editorial world?
Managing to keep absolute control and sovereignty over every photo, word and cover of my Cuban books is a reason for joy and pride. Seeing that each book is slowly selling out and knowing my buyers allows me to have a privileged relationship and to be able to propose new collaborations for the future. For example, as for the fundraising for Isla, we managed to pre-sell half of the copies produced. This success is linked with the network of supporters who’ve been following my work since 2008, with real passion and an emotional devotion.
Years ago you let go of working on assignment and you focused on your personal works, by financing them through your workshops, too. What do you seek to convey with your workshops and what is the relationship with your students?
I like to say that, after the dream that took me to New York City in 1977, the choice of abandoning assignments to dedicate myself completely to teaching was my following “revelation”. Having created the publishing company is the third one, and many more will come! Together with my students I’ve broadened the concept of family. I’ve had the privilege to build an intimate and personal relationship with many of them - a bond that goes far beyond the teacher / student status. One of the things that surprises them the most is the fact that I want their opinion on my work. I’d say it’s a unique and egalitarian relationship where everyone learns something at each workshop.
There are many youngsters amongst your students. What do you see in this new generation and what is their approach to narration through images?
Aside from a few exceptions, most of my students live on a job that has nothing to do with photography. This doesn’t prevent them from having a real passion for photography, or the fact that some of them have immense talent. My help consists in trying to guide them to their path, so that they can develop their own personal language gradually.
There are many videos that document your work - especially the publishing of your books and workshops - and others that are more personal, too. Have you ever thought about releasing a multimedia project with your photos? Do you have an interest in and do you watch the multimedia works of other photographers?
As of now, we’re satisfied with the audiovisuals we have created to promote the books - which, as you say, are a multimedia means of expression. The idea for the future is to keep going this way and produce proper documentaries.
Who are the photographers you regard as your “maestros” and whom have influenced your life and approach to photography?
The only photographer I admire deeply as a man, first, and as a photographer, second, is Robert Frank. I had the pleasure to meet him personally this year and I think our encounter has played a major role in my life as the narration of the three acts at the end of Isla.
We know that you are currently unable to return to the island that has marked your life so distinctively. What would you first do if you could go back to Cuba?
Cry out of happiness.
Who do you pass the baton to and why?
I pass it on to my dear friend and student Juan de la Cruz, with no hesitation. He shares my same path and I deem him a great photographer. The book in color of his personal take on Mexico will be released by BazanPhotos Publishing in 2016. Without the shadow of a doubt, I already know it will leave a deep mark.
The articles here have been translated for free by a native Italian speaker who loves photography and languages. If you come across an unusual expression, or a small error, we ask you to read the passion behind our words and forgive our occasional mistakes. We prefer to risk less than perfect English than limit our blog to Italian readers only.