Robert Eliasson is a Swedish Photographer who became interested in photography during a trip to Ethiopia 2007, where he spent his childhood. In 2009 he travels to Cuba and have been regularly documenting people and everyday life for his project; ‘Azúcar Crudo’.
His photographs have been the subject of articles published in LFI, SvD, GRAMA and Canon Professional Network. In 2018 his work has been exhibited in La Fábrica De Arte Cubano in Havana, Cuba, Lydmar, Stockholm, Sweden.
When you look at Robert Eliasson’s photos of Cuba, the first thing that strikes you is that he gets close. Really close.
That speaks of his relationship with the country, which he has been traveling to several times a year for the last decade. Robert’s interest in Cuba started in 2009, watching a TV commercial filmed in a bar in Havana. Struck he was, by the intimate atmosphere, and the vibrant hues that attracts so many other travelers to Cuba. So strong was the pull that he was on a plane to Havana a week later.
Mesmerized as Robert was by the capital’s color and appearance of a city frozen in time – as any first time visitor would be – but he soon discovered that there was more to explore, giving time and patience to reach beyond the visual “clichés” of vintage American cars, colonial buildings and wide smiles that has become the hallmark of this island in the Caribbean. What appealed to him most on that first visit, was the extraordinary warmth of the Cubans that he had met – they were what brought him back to Cuba, time and again over a span of ten years. In the years to come, deep connection would be one of the defining qualities of the work that would become Azúcar Crudo.
In a recent interview for LFI magazine, he described a typical day in the life of an ordinary Cuban as a logistical battle “from procuring toilet paper to putting food on the table. Getting to work is always a headache. Because of the fuel shortage, everyday errands can take hours. The average Cuban can’t afford to buy beef or fish. People eat with the seasons, and have a diet of rice, black beans, chicken or pork. Tourism is the country’s primary source of income, so the needs of the tourists always come first. There’s a dual-currency system: the domestic Peso Cubano is worth only a fraction of the Peso Convertible, (CUC), which is pegged to the US dollar. This creates a major gap between a government and a private sector income. Thus, what you end up with are university professors driving taxis, and doctors who choose to work as barkeepers.” The contrasts and breadth of life inside these hardships, the people’s resilience and how they care for each other, is what his photos tell of.
Much of Robert’s work captures textures of life in Cuba. Against backdrops of crumbling walls, broken mirrors and grand colonial facades, are Cubans going about their daily lives: a child with neon bands in her braids, peeping at the camera; an older man lighting a cigar, who was part of Fidel Castro personal escort at the age of 16; a young boy pushing a hoop across a tiled porch with slatted wooden walls, framed by lush vegetation.
Each of these photos capture such vivid movement and feeling that we start to wonder what happened after the photo was made. What about the frame after, and the one after that? The broad sweep of the 65:24 panorama only heightens the feeling that we’re looking at one still from an entire reel. Our eyes follow the horizon of the frame, wandering between foreground and background, subject and their environment. It’s an arresting format that tells us that suggests the multitude of stories that live between light and shadow – because we are privy to the broad swathe of possibilities in each wide frame.
And Robert’s subjects regard the camera with obvious trust – whether they are looking directly at the lens, or simply ignoring it. It’s clear that his subjects are so comfortable with him, that they are not bothered by his presence, or that of the camera. It’s clear that Robert has made many friends in Cuba, people who have allowed him to be part of their lives. There’s no trick to doing this, except for that of time. He returns to the same places and people year after year, allowing himself to be absorbed by Cuba and its people, forging relationships that grow stronger with time and presence. He is also evidently a photographer who treats his subjects with respect and great affection. His photos do more than show what Cuba looks like: they describe what Cuba feels like.
*Robert went to Cuba this year with the GFX 50S, and GF23mmF4 R LM WR and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR. When we asked him what he thought of the gear, he said “I am taken aback! This is some piece of equipment! A Medium format camera, that handles like a 35mm camera, no larger or heavier for that matter. What a pleasant surprise I was in for. The way it handled extreme heat, humidity, rain, extraordinary conditions in the wake of hurricane Irma. The camera didn’t fail me once! Result: Judge for yourself.”
Text by Charlene Winfred