“The camera becomes an extension of my body”: A Conversation between Juan Carlos Alom and Iberia Pérez González

Juan Carlos Alom is one of Cuba’s most notable experimental photographers and filmmakers. He explores the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of everyday life, highlighting often-overlooked aspects of Cuban culture through compelling imagery and non-linear, spontaneous visual narratives. Inspired by the aesthetics and tradition of the 1960s documentary cinema in Cuba, Alom’s oeuvre addresses Afro-Cuban traditions, spirituality and nature, and Caribbean diasporic experience from a poetic and metaphorical perspective.

Juan Carlos Alom. Nacimiento de una tierra (Birth of a Land), 2010. Gelatin silver prints. 10 prints: 15 ¼ x 15 ¼ inches each. Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami, promised gift of Jorge M. and Darlene Pérez. ©Juan Carlos Alom.

Iberia Pérez González (IPG): Your photographic work often explores unseen or little-known dimensions of Cuban culture. The series of photographs, Nacimiento de una tierra (Birth of a Land, 2010), which is currently featured in Pérez Art Museum Miami’s (PAMM) exhibition Allied with Power: African and African Diaspora Art from the Jorge M. Pérez Collection, provide one example. These photographs focus on the Abakuá secret society. What sparked your interest in documenting this all-male religious association? 

Juan Carlos Alom (JCA): The Abakuá secret society is a magico-religious brotherhood of African origin, which exists in Cuba in Havana and Matanzas. My first experience with Abakuá was in 1995, when two men showed up at my door asking if I could document a burial that would take place the next day. Two ecobios [friends] had died that day—coincidentally, on the same day they had pledged to the brotherhood many years before. Filming the funerary ritual would allow it to reach friends from Abakuá communities in Miami and New York. The next day, very early in the morning, I showed up at the place of the event. It was in Regla, a harbor neighborhood where the first Abakuá settlement on the island was established in the nineteenth century. This was my first contact with this world beyond what is written in books. I remember that they took the first coffin out to the street and broke a terracotta shingle that had an encrypted signature. Between African prayers, four men picked up the coffin and walked towards the cemetery located a few blocks away. They all walked and danced at the same time; between songs, guttural sounds and percussive rattles echoed off the walls of the coffin. As the funeral procession progressed, children, women, men, and the elderly joined in, transforming the crowd into a hive of heads and voices under the August sun. It seemed like we were in Calabar—that distant place in Africa where this secret brotherhood originated. At the entrance of the cemetery, the coffin was moved in spirals while the songs reinforced the feeling of a mysterious and powerful energy. This ritual is done so the person being buried becomes disoriented and does not know that he is entering the cemetery; this is believed to allow the deceased to rest in peace. When the first burial was finished, the second began immediately. 

Many years later, in 2010, I had the privilege of being invited to the birth of a new plante, or Abakuá initiation ceremony, in the Havana neighborhood of Mantilla. That is where this series Nacimiento de una tierra emerged. I have always been attracted to the ludic and performatic character of this celebration, the polyrhythmic complexity of its music, the corporeal expressions of these dance rituals, its costumes and accessories, the beauty and mystery of the anaforuanas [Abakuá markings or signatures]—all of which persist to this day. Many young men here in Havana were being initiated into this society in this time.  

IPG: The goat would suggest this is a sacrifice ritual, right? 

JCA: Yes, in these ceremonies the goat is sacrificed in an attempt to regain a secret power. 

IPG: Considering this is a secret society, what were some of the challenges you encountered while documenting this initiation ceremony?  

JCA: I did not have access to the most secretive part of the ritual precisely because I am not a member of this society. The challenge has always been to be honest with the community, the audience, and the material I work with to avoid misconstruing the reality of the events.  

IPG: Can you explain the relation of the images with the title of the series? 

JCA: Nacimiento de una tierra, or Birth of a Land, is a visual metaphor that refers to the new land that was born far from Africa. The existence of Abakúa in Cuba has allowed for these traditions to be preserved and transmitted from generation to generation.  

IPG: The enigmatic character of the Abakuá society captured in this series is heightened by the use of black and white photography. In fact, with a few exceptions, most of your work is in black and white. Can you talk about what drives that formal decision? 

JCA: Black and white photography has been my chosen mode for my work from the beginning. In part, this was due to the precariousness of my context: this type of film was more available and easier to develop. Eventually, I embraced the black and white aesthetic for its beauty. Monochromatic film liberates me from wrangling with accessories and added noise; it allows me to focus on my goal. I have always been fascinated by its grainy quality, luminosity, and texture. The grain is never the same in two photographs. Due to the emulsion of silver halides, the result is always different. It all depends on how the halides react to the light, creating unique textures. As time goes by, a photograph ages and continues its transformation. I have seen how the silver comes to the surface of a photograph—as if it were alive.  

Juan Carlos Alom. El libro oscuro (Dark Book), 1991-1995. Gelatin silver prints. 40 prints: 16 x 20 inches each. Courtesy the artist.

IPG: The theme of Afro-Cuban religion that you explore in Nacimiento de una tierra is also present in earlier works such as El libro oscuro (The Dark Book, 1991 – 1995), although the aesthetic approach is quite different. Can you talk more about this series?  

JCA: The series El libro oscuro was made with a large format camera in the early 1990s. This was a period of experimentation in my work. During these years, I worked a lot with expired film and photographic material that would appear along the way. I even experimented with chemistry in the developing process. I got used to the tension that arises from working with analog photography—its accidents, chance, the unexpected—and grew to accept it and even appreciate its beauty. This series has a strong oneiric component. I tried to create compositions out of images that would come to my head. I worked directly on the negatives, lifting the emulsion, scratching, and intervening in the negative images in different ways. Sometimes I feel that I went through a kind of initiation in this period so that years later I could enter Cuban nature—a landscape that has always been very mysterious and attractive to me. This is how I became interested in the plants and trees of Cuba, the roads through the woods, the rural legends, and the spirituality of the mountains. That led me to travel around the island, to live with people, listen to them, and thank them for their kindness. 

IPG: You also explore the relation between spirituality and nature in your photographic series on medicinal plants. Could you talk a bit about the theme of healing or regeneration in this body of work? 

JCA: In 2012, during a trip around the Zapata Peninsula on the southern coast, I found myself in front of a landscape of burnt royal palms—a native tree of Cuba. In the same marshy place covered with ashes, plants began to sprout again. Las plantas medicinales florecen de nuevo (Medicinal Plants Bloom Again, 2012) is a metaphor about change—a landscape burns naturally, and the next one breaks through; the landscape reconfigures itself as part of its natural evolution. Medicinal plants have long been used in Cuba to alleviate symptoms of diseases, and to heal spiritual ailments with their magico-religious qualities.  

Juan Carlos Alom. Las plantas medicinales florecen de nuevo (Medicinal Plants Bloom Again), 2012. Gelatin silver prints. 12 prints: 16 x 16 inches each. Courtesy the artist.

IPG: The motif of the seascape and light play a predominant role in Nacidos para ser libres (Born to be Free, 2012), one of a few photographic series where you use color. Here the sun shines a spotlight on the subjects portrayed, as if the viewer is being invited to enter the subjective realm of these characters. Can you talk more about this work? 

JCA: Nacidos para ser libres is a way of thinking about old age and freedom. For this series, I was working with subjects between 75 and 90 years of age. I decided to do this series of portraits in color as a celebration of life near the sea and of old age, a stage of life that is supposed to be full of the wisdom of accumulated experience. I took these portraits inside the water facing the sustained gaze of these people who, for many years, have bathed almost daily off this part of Havana’s urban coast. Entering the sea with them and my camera was like being able to enter, even if for a moment, into their life stories and the stories of their generation.  

As Cuba’s population ages, the lens of my camera bears witness to this ritual whereby some islanders dive underwater with the expectation of renewal. This attitude keeps them healthy and free, uncontaminated by the power that many other people of these same generations try to cling to. 

Juan Carlos Alom. Nacidos para ser libres (Born to be Free), 2012. Inkjet prints. 13 prints: 18 x 18 inches each. Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami, gift of Jorge M. Pérez. ©Juan Carlos Alom.

IPG: In recent years, you have engaged with the theme of the Caribbean diaspora in the United States. I recognize the iconic Toñita’s bar in the photographic series titled Bar Caribe (Caribbean Bar, 2013–2014). These photographs are fascinating—can you share more about this work?  

JCA: I created Bar Caribe when I was in Williamsburg, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Many Puerto Ricans of various generations, among other visitors, go to this place dubbed as “the last Puerto Rican social club.” For years now, this Brooklyn neighborhood has been struggling with gentrification and its negative consequences, which has caused the displacement of many Latino families that historically lived there. The Caribbean Social Club preserves the genuine spirit of Caribbean popular culture and serves as a site of resistance. This place of leisure also acts as a community kitchen on Sundays, a center for neighborhood meetings, and a place for talks and debates of common interest. For years, María Antonia Cay, its owner, fondly known as “Toñita,” sponsored softball and little league baseball teams, contributing to the revival of this deprived Latino community.  

Juan Carlos Alom. Bar Caribe (Caribbean Bar), 2013-2014. Gelatin silver prints. 30 prints: 9 x 9 inches each. Courtesy the artist.

IPG: These images give us a remarkable insight into the cultural dynamics of the Caribbean diaspora in the United States, which you have also explored through your films.  

JCA: In the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was a very large exodus of artists from Cuba to Mexico, the United States, and even to Spain. I have always felt admiration and respect for Cuban artists of this generation, many of whom contributed to my artistic training. Among them was Carlos Cárdenas, who settled in New York at that time. Whenever we met in the city, we talked about art and life; I felt identified with him as a human being and as an artist. On later trips, every time I asked about him, almost no one knew where he was. This led me to create a myth around his life. In 2019, I began filming Buscando a Carlitos Cárdenas (Searching for Carlitos Cárdenas). This film, which remains a work in progress, is a tribute to all the artists who have been creating work outside of Cuba and those who continue to leave the island. I try not to place myself in any position, but rather to disprove myths about the Cuban diaspora through my own experience. I do not see artists who left or stayed in Cuba, or are living on or off the island—I just see artists wherever they are doing their lives. I do not see them immersed in nostalgia. I see people who conceive projects and carry them out, who live as part of the world.  

So far, I have been able to film Buscando a Carlitos Cárdenas in Mexico City, Miami, San Francisco, and New York. The structure of the film is like a mosaic—small sequences form a larger conceptual structure without one central narrative. I film my experience of being in the moment, and the camera becomes an extension of my body. As the great filmmaker Robert Drew said: “I am determined to be as discreet as possible and committed to not distorting the situation.” 

Juan Carlos Alom. Buscando a Carlitos Cárdenas (Searching for Carlitos Cárdenas), ongoing, 2019-present. 16mm film (black and white, sound), 30 min. Courtesy the artist.

IPG: Cuba has a rich cinematic tradition dating back to early twentieth century. When did you start working with the moving image?  

JCA: As I mentioned earlier, in the midst of the crisis of the Special Period in Cuba in the early ‘90s, I was left without photographic supplies. Neither film, photographic paper, nor chemicals could enter the country. At that time, a friend told me he had some cans of expired 16mm film, which his father had kept in the refrigerator since the boom of the film clubs in the mid-1950s. After that, I went to Matanzas to get a 16mm camera from another photographer friend. Then the question remained of how I could develop the material, and a third friend appeared with a Soviet film developing tank. In this way, I was able to build a 16mm laboratory and began to conceive the image also in motion. Since then, I have continued developing my films at home. Hand-processing the films by myself has given me the freedom to bypass censorship and surveillance, while maintaining total autonomy over my cinematographic production. 

IPG: I particularly remember the striking juxtaposition of image and sound in your iconic 16mm black and white film Habana Solo (2000), which you shared with me during my visit to your studio in 2018. Can you talk about this work? Is there a narrative intention suggested by the interplay of the images and music sequence? 

JCA: Habana Solo is my second film. It is an ode to the city permeated by music. In the film, several iconic Cuban musicians of various genres—jazz, fusion, and Cuban music in general—appear in an uninterrupted visual solo. The images are arranged in the same way that the musicians improvise these pieces, playing off of the immediateness of the photographic medium. I spent almost a year looking for connections between the city and each music piece. I wanted to improvise with images as the musicians did with their music, approaching the city as a source of images.  

Juan Carlos Alom. Habana Solo, 2000. 16mm film (black and white, sound), 14:40 min. Courtesy the artist.

IPG: What have you been working on lately?  

JCA: Being indoors for so long during the pandemic, I started working on a film project in 16mm about confinement. The film is composed of a series of images drawn from the news on television, radio, and social media during the initial phase of lockdown in Cuba. It also has an autobiographical component because it takes as point of departure my own experience with my family—a family confined due to the COVID-19 health crisis in a country that is also confined for many other reasons. 

I am also re-editing two films: Enigmas versiformes (Versiform Enigmas, 2019) and La corriente asesina (The Killer Stream, 2019). The first film is about the Cuban charade, better known as “La Bolita,” a kind of Cuban clandestine lottery game that has never ceased to exist despite being banned by the government since 1959. This “game” is based on a well-structured and hierarchical system of encryption, in which each number corresponds to a word or figure, and each bet represents a guess. 

La corriente asesina is a personal reflection on a society in transition. The film emphasizes a contradictory economic discourse between the theory it proposes and its obsolete praxis. Through his classes, a professor tries to teach his students the basic principles of economics while, at the same time, images of daily life occur within a system that is in constant contradiction with what this professor teaches. It’s title, which means “the killer stream” refers metaphorically to the Gulf Stream, an ocean current that begins in the straits of Florida and ends up on Europe’s western shores. Its large channel of warm waters spans over kilometers across. Many boaters and fishermen refer to this powerful natural phenomenon as “the killer stream” because of the danger it poses for those trying to navigate within it. The film also alludes to other “streams” as well, like those of thought or ideology.  

I am also working with my wife, Aimara Fernández, on a special iteration of a 16mm filmmaking workshop that we have been doing together since 2017. We want to invite some artists to carry out a 16mm short film project that reflects their own experience of lockdown. 

photo credit: Aimara Fernández

Juan Carlos Alom studied the restoration of negatives and photographic images at the Fototeca de Cuba (1989), and semiotics at the Faculty of Journalism of the University of Havana (1990). Alom’s work has been exhibited in galleries and museums in Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, South Africa, the United States, and the Caribbean. His work is included in the permanent collections of the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana, Cuba; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California; Ludwig Forum for International Art, Germany; Mexico’s National Photo Library, Pachuca, Mexico; and Pérez Art Museum Miami, Florida.