Havana on the tip of the tongue

Over time, Eloy Rodríguez (Havana, 1997) has become a collector. He has had at some point more than twenty cameras on his shelf and has used them all, besides all the others that are given to him for testing. His collection pieces, he assures me, are not there, on the compartments, to be seen and to get dusty. Currently, for convenience, he works with an “orthodox” Leica 3f from 1937, with a “beautiful and delicate” Hasselblad 500 C from 1957, and with a “strong and robust” Toyo-View D45AM from 1960. Eloy Rodriguez loves cameras, those “beautiful machines,” those “pieces of history.”

La Habana en la punta de la lengua. Photograph by Eloy Rodríguez.

Eloy, your images are, as you said, a “resulting mix between life and experience.” Could you expand a little more on this idea?

I photograph my life and what catches my attention: people, places, feelings, memories, mistakes, everyday situations…

La Habana en la punta de la lengua. Photograph by Eloy Rodríguez.

Images that, in your words, “reflect suppressed impulses, memories lacking structure, forgotten directions and a fractured mind.” These are photographs that explore, from the present, a collective memory, a nostalgia. Is it right to say “nostalgia”? Are they nostalgic photographs?

Nostalgia…, maybe. Some may be nostalgic, but not necessarily so. “Collective memory” might be a more accurate description. I erase myself as the author in the moment of the photo (I try to kill my ego) to become part of my instrument. For me it is important that when the viewer sees my images he feels that it could have been him or anyone who took them. I mean I could only scratch the surface of all the drama that exists in the stories behind my images. No matter how much we delve into a photograph we can never know everything that happened, the whole story. If that spark becomes evident when viewing one of my images, then I have achieved my goal.

La Habana en la punta de la lengua. Photograph by Eloy Rodríguez.

When and how did the “It’s on the tip of my tongue” series begin to take shape?

I’ve been working on it for the past five years and still am, but until very recently I hadn’t decided on a title. I made the decision when I realized that I didn’t know how to title it, but I did know that the series was close to be finished, the feeling was palpable when I saw the images, I felt it, it was on the tip of my tongue… and voilà, everything became clear to me.

In my opinion, many of us Cubans feel this way about our lives. We know are moving forward, but without knowing how. We know we keep going, but we don’t know why, and, even so, we feel we must go on despite the difficulties; always with the intention of wanting to say something, but not knowing what. What else would you call that if not “on the tip of the tongue”?

La Habana en la punta de la lengua. Photograph by Eloy Rodríguez.

What was the primary incentive? That one?

It was difficult to start using the camera to work on something concrete. More than difficult it was almost impossible for me. So much so that after a year I felt that I had done nothing, after having shot more than forty rolls and many others that could not be developed correctly due to my lack of knowledge of laboratory techniques, something that I solved eventually.

I can say that the incentive was not knowing what to do in those moments when we do not know, but we act; moments that we live, but we do not feel and then we do not remember.

“It’s on the tip of my tongue” wants to document minimal gestures, micro-political, perhaps. To do that you pay particular attention to the intimacy of the faces; voluptuously sad faces. What is your relationship with the portraits?

I think the best way to understand people is through direct confrontation with the face. We understand them in that recognition. If we are unable to put ourselves in the other people’s places, then we cannot understand our own place.

La Habana en la punta de la lengua. Photograph by Eloy Rodríguez.

After pressing the shutter and capturing the fleetingness of a half-open eye, of a tilted chin, of a grimace, what do you say to yourself, what are you thinking about?

Before and after the shot, about many things… I always talk to myself and question everything that happens to me. I admit it’s a bit frantic sometimes, but it’s my tool to understand what I see when the environment I photograph is hostile.

Behind those faces there is a city: Havana. What relationship does the lens of your camera establish with the city?

It’s where I was born and raised, yet I can’t say I completely know every facet of the city. This causes me problems, so I don’t choose subjects, I just take pictures in a random way. It is that randomness that I intend to capture in my photographs. Most of them were taken in a random moment.

I define myself as “anti-formalist.” I create images like someone who doesn’t want to create images (pretending indifference). I don’t give much thought to issues such as detail, composition, exposure. I’m also concerned about being textually understandable, since, by making photographs in a less intentional way, I make people feel relax and think that they could have been the ones who took the pictures. I try to create images easier to digest. By removing my presence, I hope to reach the viewer. I hope they understand they saw that image in the past and now, perhaps, they are just remembering it.

La Habana en la punta de la lengua. Photograph by Eloy Rodríguez.

How does the city appear to you, to your camera?

Decadent, grotesque, masked, full of uncertainty and anxiety. Havana alienates most of my feelings. It is a city in which it is difficult for me to understand how I feel, in relation to much of what I portray. That’s why I do it, to understand.

Many say that Havana is a photogenic city. They say that wherever you point your camera, you can get a good photograph. How true is this comment?

The truth is quite the opposite. I think most Cuban photographers struggle to establish a connection with the city and achieve an image that transcends that comment. I think the work of many of my colleagues, no matter how explicit it may seem, ends up being metaphorical, without ceasing to be beautiful.

La Habana en la punta de la lengua. Photograph by Eloy Rodríguez.

However, you say that the theme of this series is “subjects that don’t seem to belong anywhere.” Are you interested in “blurring” the in situ value of the image?

It’s part of my leitmotif: I’m not interested in creating an image that is aesthetically pleasing or capable of being part of the canon of commercial or artistically successful photography. I want to create images that confront the viewer with that which they have tried to ignore or forget; that which they do not recognize as they walk; that which they avoid so as not to get involved.

Eloy, when did you start taking photographs?

Five years ago. I used to be a musician; I discovered photography by chance. I was studying to be a sound engineer in courses offered by the ISA [University of the Arts of Cuba]. One day I was too late for class and I ran into a friend and decided to go with him to his analog photography course. The subject automatically caught my attention. As we walked along, he talked to me about the use of chemicals to achieve a black and white image, like they did in the past, and about doing things in total darkness with the use of the dim little red light. What he was telling me promised to be an exotic experience, especially because it seemed romantic to me. Not using a computer or a digital camera? It was love at first sight. Since then I am a lover of the process and I have to confess that sometimes I give more value to the technique than to the result. Seeing the first image come out was a moment that defined the course my life would take.

La Habana en la punta de la lengua. Photograph by Eloy Rodríguez.

You study Visual Arts at ISA, do you only take photographs?

I only take photographs. I pay the bills doing everything, like everyone else, but artistically I only take photographs.

Do you prefer analog photography? Why?

I am inspired by the work of the photographers of the last century who worked with what they could despite the irreverence and capriciousness of the platform. Either way, they achieved incredible photos and only had one shot. That’s what makes analog photography very special to me: having very little room to make mistakes; mistakes that I can’t fix. Mistakes are precious when you let them exist.

I love lab work. I love cameras, I find them beautiful machines and pieces of history. I think it’s very romantic and I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

La Habana en la punta de la lengua. Photograph by Eloy Rodríguez.

Who have been your references and teachers in photography?

My friend and mentor Ossain Raggi, Cuban artists like Eduardo Hernández Santos, Juan Carlos Alom and Alfredo Sarabia (father). Other international photographers such as Nobuyoshi Araki, whom I admire very much, Daido Moriyama, Diane Arbus and Antoine D’Agata, among many others.

How do you relate to the tradition of photography in Cuba?

I don’t think I do it consciously, I didn’t live the same as them and I don’t think the same as them. I don’t work with the same tools nor do I have the same influences, despite knowing many iconic photographers of the Cuban visual tradition and close friends or children of those who are no longer with us.

A moment ago you mentioned that you are still working on “It’s on the tip of my tongue…”

At the moment I have no plans to close it, apart from having to stop for months because of how overwhelming it can be. It has ups and downs. Sometimes with good materials, sometimes with bad cameras, life goes on.

La Habana en la punta de la lengua. Photograph by Eloy Rodríguez.

Let’s go back to that idea from the beginning, what’s on the tip of your tongue?

If I could put it into words, I wouldn’t be an artist, a photographer. It’s better to see the images.

* Text and interview by Edgar Ariel.

Alberto Eloy Rodríguez Rodríguez (Havana, 1997). Photographer. His first personal exhibition was titled "Atrapado en un estado de lagarto" (2019). He has participated in more than a dozen group exhibitions in Cuba, Colombia, the United States and Spain. He is currently in his second year of Visual Arts at the Universidad de las Artes de Cuba (ISA)


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