Luis Alarcón is a Spanish born documentary photographer and writer who has dedicated his professional life to telling the unique and ever-changing story of Cuba and its people. Luis first arrived on the island more than 20 years ago, and over that time has changed his career from engineering professor to photographer, married a Cuban, and become an expert in its history. He’s also gained an in-depth understanding of its anthropology, genetics, migrations, and miscegenation among the various ethnicities that have played a central role in shaping its inimitable culture.
The overarching work is an ambitious one, consisting of numerous project essays showing different aspects of Cuban life. He has described it as, “A photo-biography of the island and its traditions, a ‘project of life’ that aims to document the Cuban people from different perspectives, little by little and without an end date.” His first project book is due to be published in late 2020 and will include a number of exhibitions around the island.
While no longer teaching engineering, Luis’ is a much sought after photography instructor. Magdalena Solé, an Academy Award-winning photographer for “Man on Wire” said of him, “Luis Alarcón is a fantastic photographer and great teacher with intimate and unique access to Cuba.”
There is so much interest we talked to Luis about, so many interesting facets to his work, that we had to narrow it down quite a lot. The interview that follows offers insight into his general philosophy and approach, as well as behind the scenes commentary on select images. Three essays have been combined into two series for the purposes of this article. The first is an inside look at an Afro-Cuban dance troupe, the second about the last days of the “jumpers” of Havana’s iconic Malecon Wall.
“…Cuba is a place where the ethnic groups commonly intermarry and live in harmony together; a place where racism is almost non-existent.”Luis Alarcón
Photography Life: First off Luis, thank you for agreeing to the interview.
Luis Alarcón: Thank you. I’m happy to appear in a major online publication aimed at photographers. I think it’s the best forum to discuss my pictures and ideas as a photographic storyteller. My work is primarily aimed at photographers; that is my group, the group of humans who speak my language.
PL: Speaking of photographers, who would you cite as your main influences and inspirations?
LA: There are many, but to name a few in no particular order… Since we are focused on Cuba here, Ernesto Bazan was a revelation for me. In him, I discovered a form of photography that was quite different, not standard at all, often rough, often layered in unusual ways. His trilogy of books on Cuba is a masterpiece. I also admire and have learned a lot from the work of Spanish photographers Tino Soriano and Juan Manuel Diaz Burgos. David Allan Harvey and his masterful compositions is another one I admire.
PL: I think most photographers will find it remarkable that you’ve made Cuba your lifelong project and have studied it so closely. Of course, any good documentary photographer will learn all they can about a particular subject matter before immersing themselves to make their photographs, but you have taken this to a rare level. One overarching project with numerous facets years in the making and with no end date. How did such a big decision come about?
Luis Alarcón: Gradually. In my youth, I was a tireless traveler, but one day my bags got tired with geography and jumping place to place. I was looking for something deeper and longer-lasting, a journey that would be more emotional, linguistic and cultural than traveling and taking snapshots as a tourist.
I came to Cuba in 1998 to understand a different way to live, and in the process fell in love with the people here, including with the woman who would later become my wife. And so it occurred to me over time and as I became more involved with serious photography; that telling the story of Cuban life with my pictures was the best life I could imagine. I guess you could call it a love story.
PL: I’ve heard you refer to the island in jest as ‘Planet Cuba’. So even after 20 years it still seems you have a European perspective? If so, does it help or hinder your work?
LA: Every day I travel to the heart of a culture that is as familiar to me as it is foreign. Each day I know more, and at the same time, I understand less! This fantastic island is full of surprises, and even after two decades, it’s still exciting to me.
At this point my knowledge of the country, speaking its language, sharing many of its codes but without being Cuban, helps me to make a photo-biography focusing on stories that interest me that I might not notice if I were born and raised in the culture. So to answer your question more directly, I think it’s definitely helped me.
PL: Tell us one of the main reasons why you think Cuba is so unusual?
LA: Well, my current focus is a project called “The Cuban Race”. While descendants of the Spanish predominate, there is also a large African minority, a much smaller Chinese community, and even smaller number of original natives, which until recently were thought to no longer exist. The project is documenting the racial diversity of the Cuban people and the miscegenation that has and is occurring quite naturally.
What I think is so unusual, and also quite wonderful, is that Cuba is a place where the ethnic groups commonly intermarry and live in harmony together; a place where racism is almost non-existent.
PL: Before we get into the photographs, how would you describe your approach as a documentary photographer?
LA: Ah, so many aspects to this question. But first, I think it’s very important to approach your work and your subjects with respect and an open mind. Be genuinely interested in more than the images you hope to get. With mutual respect you are working together, giving to each other for a mutual benefit. Many if not most people in Cuba want their stories told, but not by someone who is only there to take and perhaps misrepresent them.
Afro-Cuban Religion & the “Black Ballet”
PL: We put the following selection of color images together to show some of the religious symbolism behind the dances and the stories they tell. So what’s the story here?
LA: Light and shadow with religious symbolism. The necklace shows the patron saint of Cuba, “the virgin of copper”. The red in the bracelet speaks of her father, “Chango”, the yellow represents her blessed mother, “Ochun”. I also consider interesting the contrast between the muscular man and the multicolored skirt he wears, normally only worn by women who assist with religious ceremonies.
LA: The wooden figure is a protagonist on an Afro-Cuban altar. On these altars you can find even statues of American Indians, Catholic crosses, Buddhas, etc… In this case, the strength of this figure lies in that it is carved of a forest tree wood, which is an essential element of all of these altars.
PL: What’s going here with the skulls?
LA: The first thing I was told by the priest was that “The dead give birth to the saint”. This is a well-known saying in the Afro-Cuban religion. The importance of dead bones in the “gangas” or altars, is extremely important. They transmit the force that enables the communication between the “santero”, or Afro-Cuban priest, and the saints.
This altar shows some of the main elements. The necklaces are in honor of the holy leaders, with each color representing one of these Orishas, or saints. The protection symbols are drawn on knives and bones, conch shells, branches of the forest, blessed irons, etc.
PL: How do you go about shooting inanimate subjects like this, or even find them?
LA: Yes, finding them… I often tell my students the most difficult part of documentary photography is getting the access you need to what you require to tell the story. Very often this means getting permission. In the case of the skull alter I was a bit lucky, as a friend of mine happened to know the priest who made it and kept it in his home. I had a location and permission before I arrived. Normally it’s not so easy.
In terms of how I look to shoot inanimate subjects, well, like anything else you need to consider the light and the color and how you can play with them to emphasize certain aspects. The aspects that mean something and contribute to the storytelling, whether it’s the story of a single image or an essay. Of course, for some images, you need to get the correct information in order to really understand them. You can still appreciate them and get a sense of their meaning, especially if it’s part of an essay, but at times captions make a lot of sense. I don’t use them often though.
PL: I love the lighting in this shot. Did you use a tripod?
LA: No. Very rarely in fact. I feel like I lose some of my mojo without the camera in my hands. I need to be able to move spot to spot, sometimes very quickly.
The drum is essential to set the rhythm of Afro-Cuban dances and religious ceremonies. With this image being in position was easy, but being there at the right time was providential. Shortly after I knelt next to the drummer a beam of light pierced the clouds outside and entered the building through a broken skylight.
PL: So now we get into the dancers, the ‘Black Ballet’, known as, Raices Profundas (Deep Roots). Roots to Africa.
LA: Yes. Africans were brought to Cuba as slaves by the Spanish centuries ago, and they are responsible for many of the traditions that are currently seen in Cuba, especially in religión, music, and dance.
Raices Profundas has been together now for over 35 years. As we’ve touched on, their dances are based on the Cuban expression of their Afro-Religious roots. In fact, the dances themselves are a form of worship. At times the rhythms can even take the dancers into trance states. While they have various colorful costumes, choreographies, and songs and put on elaborate stage shows, this is not really my interest.
I am much more interested in the behind-the-scenes of their rehearsals that take place in a crumbling old Havana building. The energy is quite different. It’s both more relaxed and fun, and at times much more raw and intense. I was after this intensity, the movements that are practiced here with more of devotional freedom than they are under the bright lights of the stage and the big eyes of an audience.
I was looking for dynamism, skin, sweat, hair, shadows, strong blacks and whites, contrast, expression, movement, etc. I was not looking for “beautiful” images in the traditional sense. I wanted this work to be as raw, dramatic, and unique as the performers themselves.
PL: OK, so tell us about your work with this group. How did you manage to get access in the first place?
Luis Alarcon: My friend Tino Soriano, a National Geographic photographer, once told me something that made perfect sense but is often overlooked – that the ability to be in the right place at the right time is “the true art”. In other words, a photographer can be the most technically brilliant in the world, but if they don’t have the knack of being in the right place at the right time to press the shutter, it’s quite unlikely they will become a consequential documentary photographer. The good news is, the “knack” can be developed, and it begins with passion and determination.
In the case of Black Ballet, the most critical accomplishment was getting access to the rehearsals. It began slowly with one self-introduction and no photography. I just asked for permission to watch for a little while. I kept coming back, staying a bit longer each time, made friends, found out who the leader was. On the third or fourth day, he looked curiously at me and said playfully, “You sure as hell don’t look like a dancer!” With that, I rather sheepishly removed my camera and held it up. He laughed and said, “OK, OK, I see. Just don’t get in the way!” I didn’t, and my pictures were terrible. But over time as my presence became more accepted and I could move more freely the pictures got better. I feel very privileged and grateful to be able to enter this hidden place of Havana and be among friends.
PL: This rehearsal building is perfect!
LA: Yes. I was intrigued by the place the second I walked in. The environment always helps to understand the action. It is quite old, with a broken roof in many places and other signs of neglect. It is curious how much of Cuba’s architectural richness, including this building now almost abandoned, was built by slaves. There’s something ironic in this, something poetic, that the descendants of those slaves now dance here in honor of their gods.
PL: This is a great shot, truly.
LA: Thank you. I haven’t titled it, but if I did it might be something like, “trance dance”. Sometimes toward the end of rehearsals, the dancers are so deep into the rhythm of the drums that they completely forget themselves and slip into a trance state.
PL: Like the Sufi Whirling Dervish.
LA: Yes, similar. These dances are in honor of the Gods, called Orishas. When they enter a state beyond thought, they experience the dance as mystical, as a communion with the Orishas.
PL: Could you tell this is happening here?
LA: Yes. There was a shift in his expression that’s difficult to describe, but you can see it in this shot. I’m really am glad you like it because it’s definitely one of my favorites. And most memorable.
PL: How so? How did you capture it?
LA: I don’t know. Don’t laugh! I say that because in a strange sense I don’t feel like I did. I was very close to the pounding drums and could feel the vibrations in my body. I was so deeply involved with witnessing the beauty of the moment, of the dancer’s ecstasy, that my eyes became full of tears. Like the dancer, I forgot myself, at least for a moment. And somewhere in that moment, the picture happened. It was as if my camera took it without me. I have no memory of pressing the shutter release.
PL: Seriously? Wow…
LA: That said, I did have the ISO at 1600 and had pre-focused with no expectation of a sharp image, in fact, it was after a sense of movement without too much blurring. Over the years I have learned that in this kind of dance you have to follow the musical rhythms that guide the movements of the dancers. In this case, it was like I was half a photographer, half dancer. It was really quite an experience for me this day.
The funny part came after the rehearsals when the gods had a lesson in store for me. With pride and great expectations, I showed the dancer my screen, certain I would get a fantastic response. Instead, he was rather subdued and said, “Good Luis, see you tomorrow.”
I was deflated of course, but after a few seconds, I had a really good laugh at myself. This is photography.
The Last Jump
This next series of images represents a bygone era, even though it ended only a few years ago.
Luis Alarcon: I seem to have a photographic drive and penchant for documenting ways of life that are fading into history, even if in this particular case I had no idea. I think documenting history before it becomes history and cannot be photographed again, both important and personally rewarding.
In this series of images, after months of documenting life at the Malecon, (the wall that separates Havana from the sea), the police arrived one fateful day and shut it all down. From that moment on there would be no more jumping or diving or swimming along the Malecon. Most of the images shown below were taken in those last months.
PL: I imagine getting access here was much easier than for the dancers?
LA: Sure, in a way. Each photo project requires a different approach. For “The Last Jump” it was surprising to see how useful it was to talk with jumpers, not about jumping, but football. There is a great rivalry in Havana between the followers of Real Madrid and F.C. Barcelona. As a fan of Barcelona who had been on the fields of both teams in Spain, I was well versed to engage. These congenial conversations led to a certain degree of friendship and acceptance of me and my camera. Once they were bored of talking with me, they went back to their jumping and I was then just part of the scene, free to do my thing as they did theirs.
PL: So this was really the last jump?
LA: Yes I think so and for good reason! The sea was quite rough this day in 2015 as you can see. He and his friend were showing off for some tourists. I told them it was too dangerous and they should stop. Being teenagers, of course, they didn’t listen. First, his friend jumped in and then I could see this fellow was about to follow. I took the shot and he vanished, just swallowed up by the waves. We all scanned for the boys and everyone was getting very anxious. Someone called the rescue patrol. Then, much to everyone’s relief, we saw the boys waving about 300 meters out in the sea. They were picked up by the rescue boat. Shortly thereafter, the police came to the wall and over a bullhorn, announced the ban. And that was it.
Luis Alarcón is a documentary photographer and instructor based in Havana, Cuba. He’s a member of FIAP, Federation Internationale de l´art Photographique; TIFF, Trinidad International Foundation of Photography; and is the founding director of Photographing Cuba. His first published book on Cuba is to be out in late 2020, along with a series of exhibitions around the country. For more information and images, please visit his website and follow him on Facebook.