The first time Raúl Cañibano picked up a camera, he was nearly 30 years old.
A welder with a gig at an aviation company, Cañibano was visiting the Fototeca de Cuba art gallery in Havana. He found himself at an exhibit showcasing the work of Cuban photographer Alfredo Sarabia, known for his dreamy, surrealistic photos of the island.
"When I saw Sarabia's images, I was floored," Cañibano recalls in an email interview from Havana. "His photos had such an impact on me that within a few days, I gave my notice to my boss and traded the blowtorch for a camera lens. I became determined to learn to be a photographer instead."
Luckily for the photography world, he succeeded. In fact, Cañibano's take on Cuban life now rivals Sarabia's for international acclaim. His first major U.S. retrospective, "The Island Re-Portrayed (1992-2012)," is now on view at downtown Miami's Aluna Art Foundation, which features more than 80 large-format black-and-white photos from the past two decades.
"He is definitely one of the most iconic and prolific documentary photographers working in Cuba today," says William Castellanos, an art historian who researched and co-curated the exhibit along with Adriana Herrera, an El Nuevo Herald art critic.
Cañibano was born in Havana in 1961, two years after the Cuban Revolution ended. After abandoning his trade as a welder in 1989, he made a career switch to photography during one of the darkest times in his homeland's history. It was the beginning of Cuba's "Special Period" following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the island's economy crashed and basic goods became scarce.
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"For me, it was always difficult to find photographic materials," he says. "All those photographic supplies used to come from East Germany, and after the socialist camp crumbled, I had to work with expired materials for many years and encountered the occasional chemical accident where I lost all the images I had taken."