Monday, October 12, 2015

Q & A: Photographer Jerry Alt discusses Cuba

As posted previously, my colleague, Evanston-based photographer Jerry Alt recently ventured to Cuba. An exhibition of select images from his trip opened this week at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center and is expected to continue at least through December. Jerry graciously replied to some of my queries about his work.

K: Of all the places you could have trekked with your camera this year, why Cuba?

Jerry Alt (right) with his new friend,
before Jerry gave him his shoes.

J: I had thought about Cuba in the past but it wasn't realistic to travel there, but the opportunity came to me early in 2015 when I saw an ad for a small group experience with other photographers, coupled with a chance to shoot for the entire week using high end medium format camera gear. After talking to one of the organizers I knew I needed to go sooner than later before relations with the U.S. improved and investment in the infrastructure changed the character of Cuba forever. I traveled there in April 2015 and was ready to go back almost immediately upon my return.

K: What surprised you about your experience?

J: How safe the conditions were, once you got through the red tape of actually entering the country, and how generally friendly the people were. With few exceptions the people were quite receptive to us and positive about the upcoming relaxation of travel restrictions between our two countries.

K: Have a story or two to share?

J: I've told these before, but two incidents have stayed with me. The first was a visit we made to a family home in the countryside where a family of four shared a wooden shack about 200 square feet or so. When asked what we could do to improve his conditions for the family, the father (who along with his wife prepared food and drink for us from their meager provisions) said he could use a cow but really nothing was needed. We took up a collection and bought him a cow (about $200).

The other was our visit to a local boxing gym where the students were very open but their equipment and clothing was ratty and used. I ended up giving my shoes to one of the boxers, and when he came that night to collect them from our apartment building gave us an impromptu reggae performance as a thank you.

K: If or when you go back, what is the first place you want to revisit or go see because you missed seeing it during your first trip?

J: I would spend more time exploring the side streets and taking photos of the people going about their daily lives. I've traveled a lot and seen poverty, but the Cuban people are proud and happy despite their meager lifestyles. I don't think I missed anything, though I could spend more time photographing the old cars and architecture before both are replaced by the influx of new money.

K: What do you think more of us in the U.S. should understand about Cuba?

J: Despite it being  a communist country the people seemed open and free. We should not confuse their leaders' politics with the reality that the Cuban people just want to provide for their families and they are hungry for more opportunities to interact with us. Internet services are non-existent for most of the populace, and they don't get U.S. television so they have been pretty isolated from their closest neighbor for more than a full generation.

K: What do you hope to accomplish through this body of work?

J: I am hopeful that people will realize the tourism opportunity in Cuba and gain a better understanding of their culture and citizens. I also know from discussions with various groups that there are a lot of people intending to visit Cuba so in my small way perhaps I can influence them to do it sooner than later.

K: What's next on your horizon?

J: I hope the Cuba work stays up at the Civic Center long enough that people can come enjoy my images. My first love is nature and wildlife and I would like to return to that though I have a couple of other personal projects in development that focus more on portrait photography.
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Images from Jerry's "Forgotten Cuba"
can be found and purchased online.


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