Cuban Photographer Humberto Mayol

Yanelys Nuñez Leyva

Humberto Mayol

HAVANA TIMES — Humberto Mayol (1955), one of the photographers I interviewed during the research component of my class project on documentary photography, is an artist who has contributed to the construction and preservation of the varied cultural heritage of our nation.

In his work, filled with strong anthropological implications, he unites the profession of photojournalism (he worked as a photojournalist for Bohemia magazine between 1987 and 1995), the fervor of an investigative journalist (he’s a graduate of this specialty from the University of Havana) and intense human sensitivity.

As we draw nearer to the work realized by Mayol in this past decade, we can note his ability to capture timeless images that respond to the ongoing and systematic dialogue of the social imaginary of humans in their time.

HT: How did Humberto Mayol come to embrace photography as an artistic expression?

Humberto Mayol: To answer that question, I’ll refer the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, where it refers to art by saying, among the many things, that it expresses: “…virtue as well as the willingness and the ability to do something. Art is an expression of human activity through which is expressed a personal and disinterested vision that interprets the real or the imaginary through visual images, linguistics or sound. It is a set of precepts and rules needed to do something well.”

Basically, that’s what I’ve done throughout my career. Since I started I’ve done two types of photography: one that I was entrusted to do in response to the specific interests of a publication or interest, and another which I always did in a parallel fashion – and that eventually became this artistic expression, which for me is an show of my personal perception.

HT: What were your first concerns as a documentary photographer?

HM: My work and interests, from the viewpoint of photography, have always revolved around human beings and their personal universes, which are their environments, their emotions, their thoughts and questions, their roots and beliefs. Over the years, these have come to identify my visual memory, which with time have been organized into series and projects. These include the ones on Afro-Cuban religions, Chinese and Jewish communities, and the daily lives and vicissitudes of Cubans, which I have recorded for more than 30 years in the profession.

Also, working for the press gave me the opportunity to be a witness and a protagonist of events and moments in the nation’s life, which I documented.

Photographic series that were initiated in the first decade of the new millennium

This first decade of the new millennium brought big changes in my creative projection. My work divided into two major blocks – before and after. You can see this when you look at “La memoria compartida” (Shared Memory), which collects everything I did in analog photography (black and white, and under certain performance standards), and contrast this to “Espacios cotidianos” (Everyday Spaces), which defined a new way of working only with digital and color photography; my standards also changed.

Generally I don’t work in function of a series or a specific topic. I think that this happens naturally, with one image coming after another, in most cases they define themselves as being integrated and recognized within a group or series.

But some specific issues in this new millennium generated their own series, such as “Vudu” (Voodoo) and “Una historia judia” (A Jewish History).

HT: In terms of the exhibit Cuba Today, realized in 2002, what general issues remain posed?

HM: That was an exhibition by that name and in Florida the trends had already been presupposed. I was invited to participate, but I couldn’t go because I never received the visa. But having the suspicion of what could ultimately be the result, I decided to participate in any case. I must say I that I didn’t think it would be an event that would make a difference in any sense at that time. For me it was a reaffirmation of my commitment to my position as a creator and as a human being, recognizing myself and acting on my principles.

HT: The exhibit “El otro lado del alma. Religiones afrocubanas en la fotografia contemporanea” (The Other Side of the Soul. Afro-Cuban Religions in Contemporary Photography, 2003) brought together some of the snapshots of your series “Memorias” (Memoirs”). When did you start this series and what motivated your approach to Afro-Cuban religion?

HM: Actually I produced it between 2000 and 2003, but I also used images from the late 1990s, from when I was living in Venezuela.

Personally, I was very curious about all the mystery and fear surrounding these religions, the liturgy and the characters with their tremendous visual richness. Their energy and spirituality were a complete challenge. Also there was the ability to contribute to the knowledge and the preservation of the visual memory and the ritual practices of Afro-Cuban religion, which is part of the cultural roots of the Cuban people.

HT: What does the project “Los santos de la calle” (Saints of the Street) consist of?

HM: Under the title “Los santos de la calle” I generally exhibited many of the images I’ve taken on the theme of Afro-Cuban religions. Particularly in 2005, I began a working relationship with a group of young artists from the city of Palma Soriano, in Santiago de Cuba Province. These were practitioners of Voodoo. It was called the ENNEGRO Workshop, where I documented these practices in the east and, along with that group, participated in an exhibit that year in an international event at the Africa House, in Old Havana. This is now regularly organized for us to exhibit our work there. Theirs are extraordinary pieces and in my case, part of the documentation that I had done with respect to voodoo practices in the area.

HT: Tell me a little about your work “A Journey to Jewish Cuba,” realized in 2008.

HM: Between 2007 and 2008 a book with that title was published in the United States. I did it with the anthropologist and professor at the University of Michigan, Ruth Behar. This publication was the result of that collaboration that began in 2003. It covered the main centers of Jewish groups and residents on the island, from Havana to Guantanamo.

Ruth, a Jewish-Cuban, talked about her own experiences in the life in this community through stories, and in a parallel way she also told my story of how I discovered these people and their lives within other lives. This project has been critically well-received worldwide.

HT: What other exhibitions at the beginning of the 2000s have marked a pattern in your career?

HM: For me, this period mainly has the value of recognizing my work in that I’ve been invited to participate in these exhibits, both nationally and internationally. These are settings for recognizing, measuring and promoting what you do. This was the case with the invitation to the festivals for the Bicentennials in Argentina, Chile and Mexico between 2010 and 2011, where I presented my work.

After going for years without participating in a photo competition, in 2005 I presented my work at the 2nd Alfredo Sarabia Memorial Biennial of Photography – where I was awarded the grand prize. The following year, my exhibition at the Fototeca de Cuba marked the beginning of a new approach to my creative work with the inclusion of videos.

HT: What do you think of the contemporary Cuban photographic movement?

HM: I think there’s lots of photographic motivation in Cuba, despite the major constraints that exist to the practice and promotion of photography — both on the part of amateurs and professionals — in the commercial and scientific fields, in advertising and the media, as well as in exhibits. Nevertheless, new generations of photographers continue to emerge and feed on the experiences of previous generations, creating their own creative environments according to the social, technological and conceptual transformations that dominate their time.

HT: With regard to current documentary photography, do you consider there to be points of contact between the problems that photographers address in their work?

HM: Almost the majority of photographic documentaries approach these, inside and outside of Cuba. They have many points of contact. Today, more than ever, there are issues that concern and interest all of us. The new technologies of production and communication facilitate the understanding of local issues, which in turn become generalized as global phenomena that affect and interest many of us. Photographers and their work are parts of the dissemination of these issues.

HT: What must a scene have to make it attractive to Mayol’s lens?

HM: It can have many things. I don’t follow any studied rules or formulas when taking my shots. There’s lots of intuition though. I establish a connection naturally with an event, a subject or a setting that motivates me to photograph it. I can get to a place that I think is visually attractive but then feel that something is missing; but something might suddenly happen – a ray of filtered light, someone passing by and adding a suggestive shadow. There can be many things that trigger that shutter in my brain and make me take the picture. Of course there’s also experience and craftsmanship.

Currently Humberto Mayol is taking part in Lizette Vila’s project Palomas, where he is promoting actions to enrich the spiritual life of people, though based on dissimilar cultural approaches.