Photos: Cuba Libre
You may recall our Artist Spotlight on Kevin Slack's work from 2010. He has continued to make beautiful friends in Cuba and make beautiful photographs of them, so an update on his more recent work seemed in order.
Kevin was raised on a farm in rural Ontario. He received a degree in visual arts and English at the University of Western Ontario, where he studied painting, film photography, and eventually education. Kevin painted murals, traveled, and taught English, living first in Korea and then Ecuador.
Now based in Toronto, Kevin has been visiting his favorite exile, Cuba, since 2000, documenting the country and especially the men, building an extensive portfolio. While that country is tilted on the edge of change, Kevin continues to return, trying to uncover the restless and vital spirit of Cuba and Cuban men. While he focuses mainly on Havana, Kevin has traveled the island from Pinar del Rio to Holguin.
Tell us about one of your most notable shoots.
So much of what I do in Cuba is controlled risk. Will the models show up on time? Will I get the chemistry out of the models? Will it rain? Will the space be available? Will we be caught? I work with an illusion of impunity, perhaps, because I have to in order to produce what I produce. But I also try to control the risks I take. Often I will have multiple plans on a single day — exactly because things so often go wrong, or at least sideways. It took about eight months and 20 phone calls to organize a shoot with Rafael and Ramudo (picturd above). They showed up at my apartment at 7 a.m. I had already scouted the location and planned a story too. We were going to use the base of the oft-photographed El Morro. I had recently found, behind the famous landmark, stairs about six stories high, or six stories deep rather, that lead down into this beautiful empty space. The stairs are crumbling and covered in vegetation and, at least for me, a harrowing climb down. But it would be worth it for that beautiful space, for the lovely indirect lighting of the early morning. When the boys showed up, I tossed down my coffee and set out to fetch a taxi for my assistant and my models, and we arrived at El Morro at about 7:30 a.m. At this point, I still haven’t really even talked to the boys.
A man in a khaki-colored uniform stood by just as quiet as a rock as I paid the taxi. We slid out of the car with the camera gear and bags of props and watched the taxi leave. At this point, Mr. Uniform comes to life, approaches us, and informs us that the park is closed and we are not allowed to be there. I complained, of course, that it was ridiculous for him to let our taxi leave. He stubbornly refused to understand. Our taxi is gone and we have nowhere to go. When I explain that we are there to take some photos, he asks to see my license. When I have no license to produce, he explains to me where and how to get one. He guesses that he thinks it might be about 20 CUC (or $25). I tell him that we are eager to start and that we won’t be very long and I offer to pass him 30 CUC . This often works in Cuba. But this time he was having none of it. I still haven’t really talked to my models yet. The sun is already climbing the sky and it’s getting warm and I’m wasting time, and I hate wasting time. I can drag my models to the highway and try to find a taxi. I can drag my models to the beach, about 20 minutes away, and change my plans and work in direct sunlight, or I can go try to get this photo release.
I chose wrongly. I left my assistant and my models with the gear and the props and set off to fetch this photo release. I went to four buildings, waited for the wrong people, talked to the wrong people, until I finally found the right person in the right building who wanted 250 CUC or just less than $300 for a photo release. That wasn’t going to happen. It was preposterous out of principle. It was after 9 a.m. by the time I returned to my assistant and my two models and my gear and the still stalwart Mr. Uniform blocking my plans to photograph perhaps the most photographed spot in Cuba. I still haven’t taken a photograph. I still haven’t talked to my models. Mr. Uniform, perhaps uniformly, will not relent. And so there was nothing to do but resign and walk away. I knew mostly secret paths to the beach on the side of Habana Bay where I led the boys. I try to talk to the models, but mostly I’m just pushing down angry feelings. I dislike officious for officious sake especially when I have a beautiful plan. And so I try to calm my face down and I try to talk to the boys and I try to quickly rework ideas, having lost my space and my story. It’s too bright already. On the beach, we search out what little shade there is.
We don’t really start until about 10:30, or about three hours behind schedule. But I’ve got a beach. I’ve got my models. I’ve got my camera in my hands, and I cannot help but recover and feel better. We did not finish until about noon. At which point I discovered I had a wicked sunburn. I blame Mr. Uniform for that sunburn. But oh well.
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