Nancy McCrary: Chip, first of all, thank you for this opportunity to talk with you about your latest book on Cuba, Campesinos: Inside the Soul of Cuba. You were the Director of Photography at the University of Alabama for 33 years, and are now an artist-in-residence at their Honors College. Please tell us about the unique relationship the University of Alabama holds with Cuba.
Chip Cooper: I am most happy to talk about an island that changed my life. In 2003 the University of Alabama sent a delegation to Cuba to explore possibilities and I was asked to document the trip. After a few days the connections between Cuba and American South were apparent everywhere I looked. During trips back to Cuba over the next 5 years, helping support the various UA programs, I would leave my photographs and books hoping for a connection. And in 2008 it happened. Dr. Eusebio Leal, Historian of Havana and architect of restoring all of old Havana, saw one of my books and wrote to the university to send me down to work with his photographer Nestor Marti. This trip was funded by Dean Robert Olin, Dean of Arts and Sciences, who had just started the UA’S Cuba Center and was looking for a signature project.
Off I go to do something that would change me forever. Nestor was a street photographer, and well suited to our work of capturing OLD HAVANA in motion. But not me – being mostly a tripod shooter. Days went by where Nestor was in a groove and not me! I was very frustrated.
NM: When did you first meet Julio Larramendi and how did two strong-willed, professional, and respected photographers grow to establish such a successful working relationship?
CC: This is the time I met Julio, also. Nestor had to go see this very famous photographer so, right then and there, we met and knew at first sight we had a destiny together. Never had this happened before but here we were with electricity passing between us. I told him my problem about timing, and we sat talked about Bresson, and moments, and more about Cuba. It was then I decided to not think about camera settings and framing, but to respond immediately to my subject and the rest would follow. This was the big change: at my age how could I do something so different yet, within a few days, I was in my groove setting speeds on manual without slowing down, framing in a split second … now I understood “ the decisive moment”.
From that point on Julio became my go to person as Nestor and I finished Habana Vieja, Old Havana. He truly helped me understand a country that previously was to me 2+2=5. Now I got it.
Habana Vieja, Old Havana took me to New York, Miami, and Nashville book fairs and was very successful. And led to Julio suggesting we work together on a broader topic, the campesino who live all over Cuba.
NM: Campesinos is the culmination of a ten thousand mile journey through nine trips over a period of two years studying the people, gaining their trust, and building a photographic legacy of their way of life. Tell us about the editing of such a body of work.
CC: This book was my epic journey. Two Cubans, plus me and Julio, 15,000 miles, 550 locations and 3 1/2 yrs. It was most incredible for Julio who was telling me we were shooting places non-Cubans had never been. Several times I was the first American they had ever seen. We were with corn farmers who asked me to talk to them. After 5 min of telling them how much I loved Cuba I asked Julio what they thought. “They didn’t understand a word you said but wanted to hear an American talk”, he replied. They were the heart and soul of Cuba; honest, friendly and compassionate. We had over 50,000 images so we had to get it RIGHT, We owed these farmers our best!
Julio is at his best in organizing. He has a gallery in Havana, and has curated shows for 20 years. So, he developed categories for us that helped define a way of life from the landscape outside to the house inside. These included traditions, work, people, religion, and ended with hope – the children. We each edited it down to several thousand images, and then went to the ocean to work on choosing our best. Our friends, Pepe Vasquez and Jorge Foyo, who had traveled with us, helped with the decisions. It took 3 or more trips to narrow it down from 2,000 to 150 each. We were then fully invested in what we had shot.
And we both were excited at what each other had brought to the project. We are different shooters so we each caught something different in the same situation. Now, I want to add, photographers are very singular in our work, hours are spent by ourselves. This collaboration with Julio was without ego – NOT KIDDING. I knew each day I would do my best but if I didn’t get “ the shot” he would.
So the editing, which is not my favorite part, was like shooting, – whoever got the best. I brought to the table a sense of a rollercoaster in a gallery setting, moving mood along, and Julio made sure we covered the entire spectrum of a way of life that is very similar to farming in the USA 50+ years ago.
In the end, the story and life of the campesino came to life in our new book. This body of work is the best Julio and I have done to date, and that is a bold statement.
NM: In 2014 the Obama Administration and Raul Castro announced a restoration of diplomatic ties between their two countries, including the easing of trade and travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. From the eyes of someone who was immersed in the countryside of Cuba long before 2014, what effects have these changes made to the compesinos?
CC: Julio and I noticed many changes close to the water or where tourists would go. They was building onto houses, or entirely new restaurants, like an explosion. With the farmer whose whole life is the land there wasn’t much change, but many of their children are leaving the farm to live where the tourist businesses are. Regardless, yes, many changes with more money passing around where there are tourists, not so much in the country way of life. Food production is way up for the tourist market but for the average Cuban right now there is still a scarcity of many items they are accustomed to.
NM: What advice would you give a photographer wanting to follow some, or all, of your path?
CC: Get rid of your fears, especially those of “am I good enough?”!
Have a show of your work and listen to the feedback. Having to organize for a show, editing, printing, and framing is a game changer, it really puts you out there to start taking chances. In the beginning, I felt like a fisherman casting a line, whatever I caught was good but I threw many away.
Over time, I stopped commercial work that in the beginning paid for my books and shows, and now just teach and shoot.
This combination of teaching photography in the Honors College, and seeing students get over their fears and create, helps me in my shooting. Finding a balance to help you grow is essential. I, like many photographers, have done all types of work – growing awhile, then moving up to better jobs. But I always remember I started at the bottom, scared to death but I kept trying. Never did I stop trying so tenacity is required.
NM: Thank you, Chip, for being so generous with your time and thoughts, and candid. And we wish you well with the new book!
To order your copy of Campesinos: Inside the Soul of Cuba, photographs by Chip Cooper and Julio Larramendi please click Here.
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