Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cuba: Treasured Island

ALEJANDRO Gortazar is a Cuban photographer who has worked for the past 10 years in the fashion industry and the commercial sector on the island. But he’s best known as a nature photographer who visited protected nature reserves and explored the most inaccessible parts of the island to capture a wild and beautiful environment through the lens of his camera. For him Cuba is a "bastion of struggle, sacrifice, culture, nature and love" and we can now, for the first time, see a selection of some of his finest shots at exhibitions in London and Northampton. Last week Andy Brooks talked to him about his work.

Andy Brooks: Why did you choose to come to London?

Alejandro Gortazar: Well, I met my wife, who is Spanish, in Cuba. But my wife works in London so I felt it was time to spread my wings. I came to London in June and now we plan to spend our time partly in London and partly in Havana.

AB: Why do you focus on the natural world?

AG: My grandfather was a cartoonist and a landscape painter at the time of the revolution. He painted the people and the fields in which they worked. I wanted to follow in his footsteps but I was no good at painting. I soon realised that I didn’t have a natural talent for painting so I took up the camera to do the same thing with the lens and my eye. I don’t really have any limits when it comes to photography but what dominates my eye is light especially at sunrise and sunset. When I see something I want to shoot I’m very particular about technique and timing. I’m trying to show something that is not really there by enhancing the beauty of the image.

AB: What do you want people to see?

I want people to understand light, to really capture light. You can capture that with a lens and through the use of technique you can transform knowledge into an art. In my work I am representing Cuba and in this exhibition I want to show British people that there is more to Cuba than they might imagine.
Cuba is a land of absolute beauty and unforgettable landscapes – an island you would never want to leave in your life. I want to show people the wonderful wildlife of the island. This display includes a photo of the bee hummingbird which only lives in Cuba. It is only 5cm long and it’s the smallest bird in the world. I spent over two hours waiting to capture the moment of that bird in flight. I want to show how all life, like that bird, can be so attractive when humankind is good to nature.

AB: Just nature…

AG: Oh no. I don’t ignore people. In fact I’ve got a forthcoming exhibition of shots of Cuban people – 50 images for the 50th anniversary of the Cuba Revolution – as part of a project with Cuba Solidarity which will tour the UK and then go on to France and Spain.

AB: How far does the landscape mould the Cuban character?

AG: People who live in towns focus their lives on everything that urban life represents, like consumerism and technology. But when people are outside, living with nature, they realise they don’t need that many things to live a happy life. They see that nature gives them a lot. They get up early with the sun, work the land and receive its fruit, smell the air and see the sun set. You can see examples here of really proud people whose lives may be simple but who are, nevertheless, really happy…

AB: So you’re aiming at the Cuban audience as well as the world…

AG: Yes, many Cubans who live in Havana and the other towns take the countryside and the nature reserves for granted while many people in the rest of the world just have a tourist image of the island – you know the clich├ęs – beaches, cigars, the crumbling buildings of Old Havana, shoeless children and vintage cars on the streets of Havana… I want to show a hidden Cuba to the Cubans and my first photo exhibition of Cuban landscapes in 1999 proved really popular at home. It was packed out and it continued in that gallery in Havana for two years. I wanted to show the most remote areas of the island to the Cuban people. Now I want to take this hidden Cuba to the world and this is what I’m trying to do with this selection of my work here today.
I had a chance to talk about this at the opening of this exhibition in London last week. There were about 50 people there and many of them came up to me afterwards to tell me they wanted to go to Cuba to see what I had seen with their own eyes.

AB: Will your photos be published for a wider audience…

AG: I hope so and the Opus Gallery is considering producing a coffee-table book of this collection here in the near future. This exhibition is going to Northampton and Dublin and some of my works are going to Paris and Chicago. I want everyone to see this other Cuba.

AB: I guess you’re also exploring Britain…

AG: Yes indeed. I can’t spend even one day without taking photos.

Cuba, Treasured Island an exhibition by Cuban photographer Alejandro Gortazar is on at the Opus Gallery until 23rd November. Admission is free and the gallery is at 10-13 King Street, London WC2E 8HN. It then moves to the Lavata Galleria, 228 Wellingborough Road, Northampton NN! 4EJ for a Christmas season from 3rd to 31st December.

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