Ron Herman

When people think of Cuban photography, images of heroic guerillas from the Cuban revolution immediately come to mind. You will not see the faces of Che, Fidel, or Camillo Cienfuegos in the work of Cuban photographer Raúl Cañibano, born in 1961, two years after the triumph of the revolution. Instead you will find that Cañibano is a storyteller at heart, who uses the camera to narrate the story of his country, its people and their struggles in the post-revolution era.

Cañibano was trained as a welding technician in Havana and was working in civic aviation when his interest in photography first emerged. In 1987 he took a trip to Manatí, a countryside town located in one of the easternmost areas of Cuba, where Cañibano lived part of his childhood. A friend loaned him a Russian camera so that he could record memories of this trip. While traveling, Cañibano met a Cuban primary school teacher, who introduced him to the photographic studio and darkroom. There he saw photographs being developed and printed, which made a profound impression on him. When he returned to Havana, he bought his own darkroom equipment with the little money he had, and began making photographs. Initially Cañibano started photographing children’s birthday parties for income; but felt compelled to do something more expressive with his photography. It was while walking around Old Havana in 1991, that he saw an exhibit by Cuban photographer Alfredo Sarabia, known for working in the style of magical realism. “When I saw Sarabia’s images, I was floored,” said Cañibano. “His photos had such an impact on me that within a few days, I gave my notice to my boss and traded the blowtorch for a camera lens. I became determined to learn to be a photographer instead.”

His career change occurred during Cuba’s “Special Period,” following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc in the beginning of the 1990s. During this time, most of the basic necessities for living became scarce, not to mention photographic materials, which stopped coming into Cuba from East Germany. Many of Cañibano’s early documentary photographs were ruined because he was forced to use expired film and chemicals, as they were the only ones available due to a lack of commercial exchange.

Since photography schools did not exist in Cuba at the time, he taught himself by reading books on the topic and studying the basic rules of composition. He found this method of learning boring, so instead he decided to train his eye by looking at great images by the masters of photography and painting, and this helped him to compose his images. He developed a way of seeing that is deeply rooted in classicism, and traces of this can be seen throughout his work. His images evoke the classic compositions of European and American photographers from the 1930’s, like Walker Evans who also photographed in Havana. Cañibano’s use of interesting framing devices and layering of subjects throughout the picture plane are reminiscent of Josef Koudelka and Sebastião Salgado. He has observed and learned from the masters, but Cañibano developed a uniquely personal style, one that sets him apart and makes his images easily distinguishable from those of his contemporaries. “I aim for some kind of mystery in my photos,” he says. “That is the first thing I look for.” When Cañibano is photographing with his favorite 28mm lens, he captures humorous juxtapositions or different forms merging together in ways that deceive the viewer’s eye. Perhaps this is influenced by the surrealist painters and photographers, which he greatly admires. “I am not only interested in a person, but also what is going on around the subject,” Cañibano says. “I like there to be a few interesting elements in the same image. This makes a photograph very difficult to visualize since there are various people in a scene captured in an instant.” Cañibano has the intuition to know when to click the camera at the exact moment when the image elements are perfectly positioned within the frame. It’s as if he adapted Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “The Decisive Moment” to fit the intoxicating chaos of Cuba, where a single small space is often utilized for multiple distinctly different purposes. He captures the apex of multiple stories unfolding simultaneously within the same scene, thereby defining “The Decisive Cuban Moment.”

Cañibano creates photographic essays on different topics that he develops over a period of several years. Through his series, Cañibano’s images tell the story of everyday Cubans in the city (Chronicles of the City) and in the countryside (Guajira’s Land), and confront the loneliness and abandonment of ageing in Cuba (Sunset). “I try to find a discourse among a group of images and develop a personal story with a beginning and an end,” Cañibano says, “using the same structure that journalists use (who, what, when, where, why and how).” He introduces us to his subjects through his tightly cropped framing, which brings us intimately close to his cast of characters and into their lives. His eyes quickly survey the scene as he carefully edits the frame to include only the essential elements necessary for conveying the story. The result is a compassionate point of view. “I believe I am a visual narrator,” says Cañibano, “I describe my place and my time in a very personal way.”

In an effort to revisit the experiences of his childhood, Cañibano started the series Guajira’s Land in 1999. He returned for months at a time to the rural part of the island where he grew up, living day to day with the farmers and experiencing the same joys and difficulties that they did. His history in the community and familiarity with his subjects rendered his camera invisible which enabled him to capture unguarded moments in the daily lives of these rural farmers. “This project has an anthropological element,” Cañibano says, “because my intent is to document a way of life and customs that may be lost with the passage of time and change that society is experiencing as it develops.” In 1999 he won the Gran Prix in the Cuban National Photography Exhibit for his Guajira’s Land series, and in 2000, he was one of eleven photographers selected for the exhibition, 50 Years of Cuban Photography, at the Royal National Theatre in London, which showcased the work of the most significant Cuban photographers after the triumph of the revolution.

Reflecting on his work, he says, “What I wished to accomplish was to capture the love and nobility of the Cuban peasant family.” Cañibano tells the story of his Cuba with all its wonders, struggles and humanity.


Cañibano, Raúl. Personal interview. 13 August 2014.

___. Personal interview. 12 September 2014.

Castellanos Simon, Willy and Herrera Téllez, Adriana. “The Island Re-Portrayed.” Raúl Cañibano. Madrid: La Fábrica, 2013. 90-93. Print

Cortés, Dharma. “Fotografia from the inside out (en Cuba).” 18 Nov. 2011. Web. 4 Sept. 2014.

Suarez De Jesus, Carlos. “Cuban Photographer Raúl Cañibano Captures Real Life on the Island.” 14 Mar. 2013. Web. 4 Sept. 2014.

Teresa, Adriana. “In the Heart and Soul of Cuba.” The New York Times, 4 June 2010. Web. 4 Sept. 2014.

Essay © 2014, Ron Herman


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