Mohan Bhasker captures transcendent landscapes of the earth’s most awesome locations and is obsessed with traveling to remote, exotic, and exquisitely beautiful places. Born and raised in India, he came to the USA at an early age, and graduated from UCLA. He has traveled extensively in Patagonia, Tibet, and the Himalayan Ranges of Nepal, and also traversed the deserts of Lencois Maranhenses in Brazil on foot to photograph the lagoons in the middle of the deserts. Now, he shares an exquisite look of Cuba, through the lens of his Leica Monochrom and with a keen sense of the cultural relation with music, tobacco and identity.
Please tell us about the Cuba project in general, why did you do this project, what equipment did you use, what was your objective?
I’ve traveled to all Seven Continents, experienced the diversity of cultures and photographed the unique landscapes that the world has to offer. Yet Cuba still remained an enigma and unknown territory. I couldn’t wait to capture the essence and spirit of Cuba. These images were shot on my 4th trip to Cuba. Needless to say, I was captivated by the country’s beauty and it’s heart. Its’ people. I was very much taken by the friendliness, warmth, strong family values, spirit of perseverance, loyalty and hospitality of the people. They are very soulful with deep feelings and sincerely appreciate what life has given them. Even though their social economic status is minimum, they are rich with positive outlooks in life and happy hearts filled with love, compassion, appreciation for life, and friendliness. Their passion for music, singing and dancing is a huge part of their daily life. In all my travels, I have never met a culture that 100% breaths and lives for music. I saw many small children singing and dancing throughout the streets. They find true joy, relaxation and a sense of connection and identity through their music. Music and the Cuban people are one and the same. I found it intriguing and so refreshing. The musical instruments were simple and non-traditional. They sing from their soul and dance with grace. The combination of the body dancing with such intensity and the depth of their soul mesmerized me. The streets, café’s and bars are filled with music, day and night all days of the week. Everyday felt special and made me forget what day of the week it was.
The Cubans dream of enjoying and living a luxuries life but accepts and conform to the reality that a luxuries life is only but a fantasy. They find happiness and solace in the simple things and in their daily routines. My goal was to capture the raw beauty of the simplicity of the Cubans daily life. I exclusively shot this project with the Leica Monochrom and used a Leica Summicron 50 mm lens.
Have you ever been to Cuba before, and how did you navigate the island? Did you stay only in Havana?
I have visited Cuba several times. Each time was a different experience. During my first three photography expeditions, I focused exclusively in landscape photography. One of my favorite places to photograph for landscapes was Vinales, a small countryside town west of Havana. The sceneries of colonial structures, sugarcane fields, tobacco fields, workers sitting in sheds and farms, drying and rolling the famous Cuban cigars were some of the images that I captured in my previous visits.
I have stayed in the Historic Landmark Hotel Nacional in Havana and also stayed with families called Casa Particular. I found staying with families more profound, meaningful and intriguing because it gave me the opportunity to interact with family members of all ages from children, teenagers, to elders. My interactions gave me a true understanding and perspective of their life style, family values, dreams, and fears. Sharing a meal with the family was truly a bonding experience, they were loud, passionate, speaking with their hands and outspoken, not hesitating for a moment to tell you their outlook in life and of course the food was delightful and tasty.
During my street photography, 90% of the time I walked through the streets of Havana capturing the daily life of the Cubans. For my landscape photography, I took the public bus, which took me to the countryside and gave me the opportunity to interact with the locals on a personal level and to visualize their way of life.
You are mostly known for landscape photography, why did you want to explore the streets from Cuba and considering it is such a colorful scenery with its colonial architecture and vintage cars, why did you focus on monochrome?
I am primarily a landscape photographer. The daily life in Havana had intrigued, captivated and impressed me so much during my previous visits that I dedicated my 4th visit to Cuba to capture the daily life in the street of Havana. I set on foot for 2 full days in Havana and in every turn, in every hidden corner, and alley, resided locals singing, dancing and playing musical instruments, young teenagers engulfed in deep conversations or an older woman smoking a cigar with a daze look on her face. One of my main objectives as depicted in my images, was to capture their passion and joy for music. The Cubans love to pose for you, but my objective was to capture candid pictures depicting their actions and emotions in a very personal way without them knowing it. Very intriguing and special moments where captured by my lens.
Street photography involves being on foot, scouting for that perfect shot and capturing the moments. Sometimes you anticipate a shot, wait for the opportunity to materialize, which at times doesn’t happen, it’s a chance you take. It’s a hit and miss. While landscape photography is different. You wait for the right light conditions and then capture the moment. I grew up with black and white film and truly have always had a fascination for black and white photography. However, being a fanatic and striving for perfection, converting digital RGB files to Monochrome did not meet my continued and growing expectations. I continued to shoot film until I started using monochrome. Monochrome comes very close to analog black and white and gives me a full dynamic range. The postproduction is very important to use all the information that the raw files provide. Monochrome is easier to use in the field and eliminates the surprises.
Landscapes and street photography are quite different and have their challenges. I prefer black and white for street photography and people photography. It takes away the distraction and focuses on the expressions and the mood of the people.
Cuba has a long history of political and economic challenges, which in a way, reflects through its people and their activities. Your images seem to capture these day to day activities, can you explain a bit more?
The people of Cuba have lived a very secluded life away from worldwide influences. They lack the freedom to choose their economic destiny. From our perspective, a nation with a weak and inefficient economy can hardly be considered sovereign. Similarly, a society where individuals lack the ability to create wealth cannot be considered a free one. Economic rights are a fundamental component of human rights. However, the people of Cuba embrace their lifestyle without bitterness, remorse or hesitation. They are very proud of their heritage, culture and do not hesitate to remind you of that fact. They stand united and enjoy life to the fullest as I have depicted in my images.
All the way back from the 16th century to the present day, the Cuban tobacco industry has been almost a symbol of Cuban identity and culture, aside of a strong exporting product. Several of these images show how the tradition continues. Is this something that caught your eye?
Music and tobacco are the biggest and most defining social pillars of the daily life in Cuba for the rich and the poor. You may add mojitos to the list!! Life revolves around them. It is a conversional piece and you can’t avoid finding yourself dancing to their melodies tunes, smoking a cigar and drinking a minted mojito. It defines Cuba and symbolizes it. I tried to capture those moments on several occasions and under different circumstances.
The contrast between the colonial influence from the 15th and 16th centuries still remain in Old Havana, and blends with the early 20th century capitalist influence as seen by its vintage cars, something which has been documented by many throughout the years. How do you see the relation between the city and its people?
The city and the people of Havana are one and the same. The locals take great pride of their rich heritage as depicted by the traditional colonial architecture. As renovations are now a common sight in the city in anticipation of the growing tourist industry, the locals are excited of the possibility of additional jobs, higher wages and a better life but they are also cautious in wanting to maintain the Havana that they have known for so long and become a way of life for them.
More than a year has passed since the US and Cuba began normalizing diplomatic relations. How do you perceive this new stage in Cuban history? Is it something you feel when walking through the streets and interacting with people?
Most of the locals are excited about the economic growth, which anticipates more employment opportunities. However, they are aware that the anticipated changes have their pros and cons. During my conversations with the locals, they weren’t concern with tourism changing the foundation of Havana or the traditional look and life in Cuba. My overall feeling was that the people were excited about the new changes. However, they expressed frustrations with regards to how slow the process was and the obstacles to implement the changes for a better life. Some expressed that these new changes are not going to help the poverty that heavily prevails in Cuba but will most likely benefit the affluent people.
Lastly, is there anything you’d like to add for our readers to know about? Any other projects in the pipeline?
Photography has been my passion since childhood. My father gave me my first camera at 6 years old. I have mostly shot with analog using all formats including the large formats. I started shooting with digital in 2011 for my professional work. Monochrom is one of my favorite cameras and is always a part of my gear. I do all of my printing including black and whites. I still enjoy doing analog dark room printing for my favorite shots.
I truly like to share my passion and enjoy teaching photography. I conduct photography tour expeditions for small groups. Some of my favorite places for expeditions consist of India, Iceland, Africa and Cuba. I am in the process of publishing a book on Cuba, which will consist exclusively of black and white photographs taken with my Leica Monochrom. It will be titled ‘Happy Havana’ and will be released early next year 2017.
Thank you Mohan!
To know more about Mohan’s work, please visit his official website.