|Ernesto Bazan, Photo: Francesco Pavia|
•BA: Tell me about the process behind Before You Grow Up. Why this book and why now? It seems like a slight departure from your other books in that it's much more personal.
EB: The book was a naive idea that I had of documenting my kids' life since they were in their mom's womb. Then life made it much more complicated after my father's passing and leaving Cuba. I don't even know how I managed to photograph my mother standing by the coffin or the smoke of cremation the following day.
There is a page in the book about your dad. So his death helped motivate the book?
Not necessarily as a source of main inspiration, my own family was, but then in the midst of the making I realized that I couldn't leave my Sicilian family out. They are an intrinsic part of me and who I am both as a man and a photographer. I'd only say that it hasn't been an easy process and I'm so happy it came out and I have given copies to my kids, wife, mother and brothers! I took it off my chest and now I can concentrate on new projects leaving behind something that will always accompany my kids.
I like how the book comes full circle from your childhood through to your parenthood.
Yes, in the end as you saw it has a positive message and hope for my kids' future, but it's a sort of roller-coaster of everybody's life I guess.
I don't mean to sound morbid but it does have the general tone of a letter meant for after you pass away. Something for the kids to remember you by. But hopefully that's not for a while.
Yes, it could also be perceived this way whenever that moment will come, but at 58 I feel strong and full of life , and ready to take on new projects as they unfold in my life. The last page of the book in which I tell the story of my uncanny and unexpected return to Cuba is an affirmation of the beauty that life is!
What about your other photographic artifacts? What will happen to them? Your negatives and prints and equipment?
To be honest I never thought about this. Have you? Hopefully they all will be shared with a bigger audience.
It sounds like your father's passing reminded you of the life cycle and things left behind, etc.
My father's passing touched very raw chords within me and the presence of death has never left since he let us. The impermanent feeling of life that we often forget about, luckily, that things can change in a second. I'm an optimist overall, but I was deeply marked by that moment.
That's what photographers are for, right? To make moments permanent. Or give them that illusion.
You're an optimist. How important do you think optimism is for photographers? Can you find good photos if you don't expect to find them? Can a pessimist find good photos?
Like anybody, depending on the mood I find myself in, I can be the greatest optimist, other times you can fell blue. Actually when I first look at my contacts I always feel kind of sad as I wrote in the first book of my Cuban trilogy:
“I look at my contact sheets. A feeling of utter depression seizes me. I sense a huge loss within me. And what’s worse is that there is nothing I can do about it. I want to cry the silence of the empty room. A reminder of how difficult it is to take a damned good picture. I can only accept the verdict as a sentenced prisoner.”
I can only add that if I have a few good images after one of my workshop or trip I feel very delighted and grateful!
There's a part of the book where you say your father didn't like you being a photographer at first. Did he later change his mind?
In spite of them he was so generous with me and supported my studying at SVA here in NY. Later on he was happy to have a son that like him followed his path, his passion and not just a profession. On top of that he was happy to have had his only grandchildren who he loved so much and predicted that one of the them was going to follow his footsteps and become a doctor. We are four brothers and none followed that path.
What about your twins? What will they be?
If you look at the part devoted to my father, you can read the dedication he wrote to them on a medical book he had written. At the time, my kids were 13 and he already knew who was going to follow his footsteps. It's quite uncanny considering that we all forgot about the book, the dedication in it, and it was about to be tossed out by my wife and then it was rescued by the cleaning lady who took it out of a garbage trash bag.
Nice save! Why would you toss that out? By mistake?
Yes by mistake and the cleaning lady in Mexico without being told by anyone went and rescued it from total oblivion.
I remember that part about your dad. There's a photo of your sons watching a surgery. Did one or both of them go on to pursue medicine?
Pietro my son like me has been dreaming of becoming a doctor when he was 10. I dreamed of becoming a photographer at 17. My wife dreamed that I could return to Cuba after so many years.
I don't know the full story there. Why did you leave Cuba and are you planning to move back?
I was forced out because of my workshops in 2006. Then exactly 10 years later I returned. I just go back sporadically whenever I feel like. I was persona non grata for 10 years in exile.
I don't understand. What did the workshops have to do with it?
Frankly not sure. I was a foreign correspondent and could take all the pictures I wanted but not teach. It was a blessing in disguise to give my Cuban family complete freedom.
So they booted you and your family. Terrible. You moved to Mexico. And now you have moved to New York? Is that correct?
Yes. I've been leaving in NY since 1979 but then I lived in Cuba on and off for 14 years. Then 9 years in Mexico and then back here. I'm printing in the darkroom. Still using film, still processing it myself.
Great. Me too!
Why have you continued to use analog processes? What is it about film and darkroom work? Do you use digital equipment at all?
Simply because I love the entire slow and long process. I love the quality that you get from film negatives, the fact that both film and contact sheets are tangible; they are journal pages of your existence. When you go back to them you can remember many details that your memory is slowly losing, you can smell and feel the moments long gone. And I also love to go back to my contacts because I can be surprised in finding images that had been totally neglected before for the simple reason that my intuitive eye with which I took each single image (good and bad) is always light years ahead of my editing eye, which needs years, at times, to recognize a good image that I intuitively took. The more I shoot, the more I do my books, the more I know that I need to return to all the proof sheets of that specific project and invariably something new pops up! With each single book of the Cuban trilogy I was able to find good images (which are now in each book) that had been unnoticed in the first selection viewing.
I’ve been using a digital camera because it was given to me and wanted to see how it felt like to be shooting digitally. I’m using it for a specific project mixing digital with film images. I like that there is the same vision behind all of them, but quite a different look to the digital files.
I think that sense of analog commitment comes across in your book's design. It feels very organic like a scrapbook.
Yes, definitely. I also wanted to give the reader that family photo album scrapbook look.
Plus all the handwriting. Maybe there is a connection between someone using analog photo processes and writing text in handwriting.
I'd say so.
Did your family help with the choice of photos and layout/design?
They all hated my drawings and then when the book finally came out they all loved them. I started drawing at the urging of my designer to make it more organized and move away from a perfectly designed book. I just did it because I felt I wanted to convey my feelings with different medias. I will use the lesson learned in future projects.
You wanted to move away from perfect design. Is there something photographically appealing about imperfection?
I think my best images are about imperfection, oblique horizons, tilted angle, but they seem to work for me.
What is your next project?
It will be about the work I’ve done in Bahia, Brazil, my new Cuba as I like to say. I’ve been going there for over a decade and I’m beginning to finally understand the reason why I keep returning. Unlike my Cuban work, the Bahia work is definitely about the African diaspora, the incredible resiliency of these former slaves to find within themselves the strength to carry out their faith, customs and culture despite having arrived on the other side of the ocean as slaves. I find it very moving and inspiring. I must have been an African black man in some of my past lives. It’s no surprise that my life companion Sissy is Afro-cuban and our sons are the result of this special encounter between two apparently “different” races. We are all one!
All images above from Before You Grow Up, © Ernesto Bazan
All images above from Before You Grow Up, © Ernesto Bazan