Thursday, 13 October 2011
Patria O Muerte: an interview with Ross Fraser McLean by Daniel Faichney
Patria O Muerte is a collection of photographs taken by Ross Fraser Mclean in Cuba, in 2009. That year marked half a century since the end of the Cuban Revolution, which established the Communist government still in place to this day. This historic anniversary formed an interesting entry point for Mclean, as well as indirectly providing him with a title for the collection of work. I spoke with McLean as he was preparing the pictures for his solo exhibition in Such and Such studio:
DF: First things first, what made you choose Cuba?
RFM: I guess I’ve always dreamed of Cuba in a weird sort of way, a lot of my childhood – times when I was growing up with my Pa – involved motor vehicles; and so many classic examples that are still on the streets there. There’s also this strange kind of fantasy paradise idea to it; it really is the tropical paradise, even though folks are just going about their business as normal. On top of that there’s curiosity about how our country would function without what we reckon are some of its basic foundations. Cut off from trade with the United States, even though the streets are full of the power cars which were emblematic of the U.S. in the 50s. They’re now an almost independent country, with a very proud, fiery people.
DF: You’re a native of Dundee though, a town populated with some pretty fiery, proud people of its own, did you find that you recognised aspects of the Cuban character?
RFM: I think growing up in Dundee more than prepared me for some of the situations that I found myself in, but I guess it’s a strange thing, it’s like everything, the way we think, to the core, is different. There’s a lot more individualism here. As deep as you could get in Cuba you still felt there was a lot of togetherness between the people. I wouldn’t describe myself as a Communist, but I’ve felt that in other Communist countries too. Cuba in particular though had this strong sense of community.
DF: Do you feel that the time that’s elapsed between taking the photos and exhibiting them has allowed you more perspective on them? Have you found that additional space to breathe positive?
RFM: Yes, definitely. I suppose everyone is in such a rush nowadays; in my eyes photos get better with age. It’s a weird thing; all the images were shot on film, so there’s already that sense of distance. There aren’t multiple shots of the same thing; there aren’t any shots that were a bit scattily composed, or badly exposed, then perfected with the next try. That’s just not what I was going for. Working on film is more labour intensive; I think you have to be sure of the worth of an image to get to the point of developing it. A lot of these pictures, to me, have got different connotations than what anyone else will take from them.
DF: We’ve talked about time, in the sense of it giving you perspective, but let’s talk about timing; was it intentional that you would go to Cuba on the 50th anniversary of the Revolution’s culmination, or was that a happy accident?
RFM: Yeah, there was a touch of serendipity; I mean I wasn’t waiting to go that particular year. I’d wanted to go for so long and couldn’t, and when there was finally a chance to go, I couldn’t quite believe it was timed so well with a huge landmark in their recent history.
DF: Let’s talk about your candid shots, the observational pictures you took on the streets.
RFM: I guess serendipity comes into play again in the sense that in these shots, there’s no real forethought or planning in them. All these shots are about simplifying complex emotional and rational responses; choosing that frame, or that composition. Every millimetre counts. It’s all in what you include and what you don’t. People compare painting and photography, and it’s odd because they’re total opposites. It’s just the result that could be confused. In photography you start off with the chaos of the world, and simplify it to say what you want to say, whereas with painting you start with a blank canvas or a composed scene. A lot of the subjects of these shots would be over if I’d stopped to compose for too long.
DF: Did you feel at first like you were shooting as a foreigner, before acclimatising to the place?
RFM: You are always on the outside, trying to get in. Ironically, you’re trying to get in through a piece of glass. Sometimes I get infuriated when I see that there’s a situation where it’s just inappropriate to take a picture, and it doesn’t stop some people, they’re not in tune with what they’re shooting. These shots, there are inanimate objects, but it’s always a process of trying to get closer. To draw in.
DF: In this case was this subject the Cuban people?
RFM: Definitely. A lot of it was the not just the people but the place, the big picture as well as the more intimate take on things. I found it quite interesting, the comparisons and the differences, somewhere with quite a different approach to managing society. The average wage there is about the equivalent of about 7 to 8 pounds a month. How does that work? There are the nice houses, and then there are the crumbling, run-down shacks. How does that system work, and why?
DF: You actually appear in one of the street scenes, a reflection in a mirror, was that in any way intentional? It seems to sum up trying to ‘get in through the piece of glass’.
RFM: It’s weird, the vanity of it all! This shot, we were travelling at reasonable speed, there’s a little wing mirror, I’ve spotted this relationship of colours, and taken the shot. But the camera is like a double sided mirror, or a prism, as much as its showing you the subject, its showing you the taker, and their personal motivations. It’s kind of a joke about that. Also an echo of a photo from China, riding about on the back of a motorcycle without any protection, chuffed with myself I could let go and take a shot. I wasn’t sure about including that shot. I hope I’m still hidden in it, to an extent.
I think that in each frame a decision has been made on instinct, and you can read more of the complexities in retrospect, as we spoke about before. Even though I think I picked out the final selection in a matter of weeks, sometimes things need a wee bit of time, to see which echoes resonate, and which just fade away.
DF: The reason I wanted to do this as a conversation, rather than as an essay, is that I didn’t want my voice overriding yours, putting words in your mouth! Obviously, I’ve made my own impressions of the work, but there are a couple of ideas there, these echoes and reflections, that seem like a good point to look at your personal motivations; to look at what echoes and reflections there were of your life in this strange land. What were the primary focuses for you of that nature?
RFM: There’re different things that will spark off; a memory or a dream, but going without too many pre-conceived notions or ideas was something I was keen on. Obviously there was the cultural relevance of these old 50s cars, but I found myself falling in love with these old Soviet Ladas too. I’m not one of these fellas that would be too handy if your car broke down, I’m no mechanic, but a lot of my childhood was tied in with that culture. It’s quite an important point to the pictures, and to the whole reason I became so obsessive about photography in the first place. Growing up, a lot of the time there was always this presence of cars; they went along with the presence of my father. My dad was the kind of guy you would want there when your car when it broke down. He’d know exactly what to do, and get it done.
DF: Was it then initially a technical fascination for you, with the cameras?
RFM: It’s not so much that actually, it’s more to do with death in the sense that my dad died when I was 18. That was quite a tragic age for me, more so because he was so young too. He left quite a vacuum; a void. For me there’s relevance there to the very nature of what photography is; one of my first photographs was of him, framed through a window at the back of the house, his area of the house. All of the nuts and bolts in jars lining the window, and him framed haphazardly within it, popping up in the window just outside the house. That fun spark lived on, through the picture, or outwith the picture, to me. Childhood memories of whenever my dad was taking pictures, he would spend what felt like hours with us lining up, typical family holiday situation where everyone’s already getting pretty tired of each other.
DF: The impetus seems similar, between the two types of photo. Preservation seems to be key. To return to the idea of photo being like a prism, what you’re capturing in that prism is if not the spirit of a person then the spirit of a moment with that person. The difference being that with the family photo, it can get laboured, I suppose, beyond it being fun.
RFM: It’s almost like it kills the whole reason for doing it. I don’t know, there’s certainly something weird about it as an art. Photographs could probably be seen as ghosts, they’re immortalising something, but as a two dimensional imitation, or an illusion. It’s a way of allowing yourself to find your way back.
DF: This idea of the immortal imitation or representation, leads my mind to the Havana Necropolis, you mentioned there were a lot of shots pertaining to the Necropolis. Is that not a similar form of preservation?
RFM: Well, it’s funny, walking around there, it’s like the entire city's dead in one area. It wasn’t an objective originally, I didn’t go there thinking ‘I’m going to go on holiday to Cuba, and go to the graveyard’, but it had a sense of peace to it. I was wandering, and again just by chance somebody wanted to show me around, give me a tour. That opened it up a lot more. At first I was being drawn to these quite ornate sculptures and statues and monuments; these were all the people with money, and it wasn’t until I met the guy who was my unofficial tour guide that I saw the other side of it; the reality of how these things work, and of the human life cycle almost. The people with money would have these giant, ornate, family tombs, and the people without money would be given a box, and even that costs money, but he showed me giant pits where the bones were stored after people had decomposed. Often it happens that people are buried and then after a while their bones are dug up and stored in a box of about 50cm by 20cm, a little concrete box. I was brought face to face with that in quite an extreme way. My Spanish is not the best, but we were able to communicate in a way, but it wasn’t until he opened up one of these containers that I realised that every one of these boxes with names hand painted on the side contained what had been a person. It seemed almost like a set up that the one he chose to open and show me had the occupant’s false teeth in.
DF: Further to that then, I wanted to ask if you felt that the capturing and preservation of spontaneous moments that you talked about in your work had anything in common with these tributes to past lives in the Necropolis?
RFM: Well I think that the photographic process has a touch of the monumental to it, honouring a moment, no matter how small, that’s passed, but that has made an impact on you.
DF: Did you feel much of a connection to those large monuments though? It sounds as if you had a much more affecting, human experience in the poorer parts of the cemetery.
RFM: Yeah, it’s still people, and it seems ironic that a society built on Communist ideals, that whole system laid out, seeing the truth of it all, it brought into focus the real purpose of the place. I don’t know how I would relate in that sense in a different situation though. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, it’s got a certain power, beauty and precision to it, with its statues and monuments, that you can’t deny. These statues are meant to last an infinite amount of time. Without those things I don’t think you would feel the same way, but it does throw into stark contrast the way they treat the bodies of poor people. It also seems to relate to the fact that a lot of the photos, particularly the street scenes and observational shots, are of fleeting moments that have now been captured for posterity.
DF: Next I’d like to talk a little about the title of the exhibition. Now, even before you use it to define a collection of photos, it’s quite a loaded phrase, and certainly in context there seems to be a lot to it. Would you illuminating that a bit?
RFM: Well I guess it makes sense to explain where I first came across the phrase. It's strange in Cuba, there are all these empty billboards. The frames of these billboards are there, but of course, being a Communist country there's no advertising allowed; the only promotional material is propaganda of the state. Patria O Muerte is, if you like, the slogan of Free Cuba.
DF: You’ve spoken before about its relevance to the revolution as well, before the fight was over.
RFM: Yes, well it’s usually followed by ‘Venceremos’, which means ‘We shall overcome’. Che Guevara used it famously in December 1964 when he traveled to New York City as head of the Cuban delegation to speak at the United Nations but Fidel Castro has been using Patria o Muerte since 1959. Although José Martí is the real political hero.
DF: At the same time though, whilst the political significance is relevant, it doesn’t seem to be central to your work. When did you decide that ‘Patria O Muerte’ was a suitable title for the collection of photographs?
RFM: As soon as I saw it I knew that a lot of what was going on for me on that journey was about confronting death, in a way. Obviously I recognised the phrase, but thinking about it further I found it quite strange. Patria is to do with home, and belonging, and the parents and then it’s set in binary opposition with death, in such a simple, short phrase. Some people have tried to translate it more literally, and have reached a conclusion about it being directly about the deaths of parents. That’s reductive, I think, because it is a multi-layered exhibition, but they’re not a million miles away I suppose.
DF: Mortality certainly is a theme which looms large over the whole project for you, then?
RFM: Yes, although I’ve billed it in a way that should hopefully allow me not to have to confront that publicly, with strangers, despite me talking about it here and now. It‘s being expressed, but expressed metaphorically.
DF: Do you feel then that making the pictures publicly available is cathartic in that case?
RFM: I think it definitely is, there’s always an emotional attachment in pictures; in a strange sort of way I like that fact that the pictures say one thing to me and a completely different thing to someone else. People from different points of view pick up something completely different.
DF: One thing I wanted to ask you about, this selection of pictures deals heavily with the subject of the death of your dad. Cuba was far from your first photographic excursion, so what confuses me is that something so central to your compulsion to take photographs took so long to emerge visibly in your work. Why is that?
RFM: The funny thing is, it’s definitely not the first project I’ve dealt with these issues. The whole subject of photography, as we were discussing, is about the past; harking back to it, or preserving it. Capturing moments and holding on to them.
DF: So you felt a particularly strong presence of the past in Cuba, then?
RFM: Well I've always seen travel to other countries akin to that of traveling through time. There are certain key points and memories that are tied up in connection with that time. Some of the reasons we talked about before, like the presence of the motor vehicles. It sounds cliché, but when you’re out there looking for shots, you’re finding yourself too; in terms of the pictures illustrating you as much as your subject. The real initial motivation, I think, for anyone pursuing photography, is involvement. It’s nice to share the experiences you go through, and to preserve these memories, but the motivation is to experience it first-hand. Personally, for me, having dyspraxia, and finding it difficult to express myself in ways that other people take for granted, I’ll go a much more roundabout way to get my point across.
DF: There is something that sounds almost contradictory in what you were saying. You’ve mentioned that the personal material in your photos is not something you want to have to confront publicly, yet you say that the pictures are your clearest form of communication. If you’re intent on some of the subject matter remaining private, are you confident that someone else’s perception will differ so much that they won’t see the same thing?
RFM: There’s always a loaded meaning, in everything. You don’t always know what triggers certain feelings, but it intrigues me to capture some of that, and to live with it, or the illusion of it at any rate, and to see that to someone else it means something entirely different. It’s funny though, you always hope that maybe somebody will see the same thing in the picture, that they’ll be able to identify or relate. Even the more personal stuff. Primarily though I hope people get something out of it, that they enjoy it. It’s still amazing to me how much depth you can read into the shallow surface of a photograph, it’s a way to attempt to explain myself, without really knowing what I’m trying to explain.