The young North American professor Ron Herman, who organised a show for Raul Cañibano in California, tells in a documentary the impression he had when he first saw the photos by the Cuban artist. He was reviewing portfolios at the Fototeca de Cuba, in Havana, when Cañibano handed him his own portfolio. Herman was impressed both by the fact that Cañibano's photographic vision was different from that of the other participants, and because it was difficult to set any one photograph apart from the others. In his words, “each one was exceptional.”
His claim highlights not only Cañibano's tremendous sense of image, the consistency of his work and his technical rigor, but also, and perhaps more importantly, his singularity. Successfully producing Magnum-type photos in Cuba is difficult because of how easy it seems to be: the photos already exist in reality. It is very tempting to limit oneself to registering strong images that seem to be waiting simply for the click of a camera, especially among the living ruins of Havana. It is so very easy to fall into the simple or facile, in the repetition of stereotypical images.
Cañibano avoids this through the bond he has with the surroundings he photographs, through his eye and his personal sensitivity, and because his centre and his guide is to delve deeper into the human being, not simply reflect a landscape or an atmosphere. In every portrait, even if indirect, photographers wields an element of power over the photographed subjects: they tend to instrumentalize them, to use them as objects. Notwithstanding, in the Cuban artist's photos (similar to in those of Paz Errázuriz), the persons photographed preserve their diligence, their inner being, their character. Such focus on people and on their agency, and the sympathy and emotion that Cañibano displays towards them, distance his work both from exoticism and from the aestheticization of poverty that have been criticised in the work of Sebastiao Salgado (one of his greatest sources of inspiration) and others.
Additionally, Cañibano (like Lu Nan in China and Cristina García Rodero in numerous places around the world) works with patience and dedication on very broad themes: life in the countryside, city life, old age, allowing him to understand the people and areas he photographs and providing him with plenty of material to choose. He has always worked in Cuba, and he is so deeply attached to the country that I doubt he could work anywhere else.
In this exhibition at the Centro de Arte Tomás y Valiente, CEART, they have decided to include several of these broad themes, apparently with the criteria of offering the audience an overview of the diversity of the artist’s body of work and not limiting the sample to his classic pieces. This even gives us the opportunity to view a few of the scarce photos by Cañibano that do not include a human presence. Of course, we will see some of his masterpieces, such as the photo of the old man lying down and the child glimpsed through the mosquito netting, a photo of enigmatic beauty, as it is the photo of a group of backlit people seen through the mist. The “atmospheric”, “Hungarian” photos that appear in Cañibano's work are exceptional in Cuban documentary photography. This exhibition includes other classic pieces, such as the child with the balloon hat and three figures on the roof, the old woman with cats and television... The show offers us a synthesis of the artist’s already long oeuvre.
Despite his focus on the people he is portraying, Cañibano's photos are more than spontaneous documentary portraits. What sets the artist apart, giving his work density of meaning and originality, is his ability to input multiple narratives within the same photo. Often there is a person in the foreground, with others in the background or off to one side that are equally important as the apparent focus or centre of the photo. If we look further, these other figures are performing individual actions or expressing emotions that are not directly related to what is occurring in the foreground, or that may even contradict it. There are several stories occurring simultaneously.
This makes Cañibano's photos structurally dynamic, representing multiple narratives. They have a lot to say. Unlike Henri Cartier-Bresson's single “decisive moment”, Cañibano's photos often capture several “decisive moments” all at once, each one suggestive, significant, and often unrelated other than by the frame that groups them together in the same space. The images are a complex collection of simultaneous chronicles, with a plurality of senses.
We could say that he subverts the rules of the foreground, removing its prominence and place within the hierarchy to the benefit of what is occurring around or behind it. This surrounding area is not merely a background; rather, as a figure, it alters the established relation between these elements within the composition. This activation of background elements calls to mind the cinematography of Gregg Toland and his deep-focus photography in Citizen Kane. However, no less important is the multi-focus of Cañibano: the cohabitation of actions and expressions in a single image, fracturing its oneness to highlight the simultaneous nature of the diverse.
They are inclusive images (the postmodern “both/and” vision of Robert Venturi, as opposed to the modern “either/or”), which at times have been classified as surrealist despite their documentary nature. This is due to the unusual character of the relationships that are often created through the coexistence of the diverse and the contrary, as well as to the fact that Cañibano's sense of poetry is not realistic in the strict sense of the word, even if it is documentary in nature. He looks for the unexpected, the suggestive, and the extraordinary. This intention can be discovered in a few examples in which the photographer stages his works, although they are never awkward or affected, and do not contradict the reality of his subjects.
Salvador Dali said once in an interview that Las Meninas, the famous painting by Diego Velázquez, contained more “air” inside it than any other painting in history. We could say something similar about Cañibano's photos: it is amazing to see how much “air”, how much world, he is able to fit into a single image – not because he is using a wide-angle lens, but because of his ability to capture complex situations despite the velocity and spontaneity that characterise documentary photography. His photos are full of the “air” of Cuba.