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.
"The Island Re-Portrayed (1992-2012)": Through April 13 at Aluna Art Foundation, 172 W. Flagler St., Miami; 305-305-6471; facebook.com/alunaartfoundation. Open Monday through Friday 5 to 8 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday noon to 3 p.m.
"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.
"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."
At first, Cañibano took a job as an apprentice at a commercial studio in Havana. He learned to develop photos and eked out a living by shooting quinceañeras and weddings.
"Initially, I had no background in the arts and was uninformed in general," he says. "Thanks to Ricardo Santo, a photographer who befriended me... I began to learn."
Since then, the self-taught, 51-year-old artist has gone on to earn worldwide recognition. On view at Aluna are four of his award-winning historical photo essays — including Crónicas de la Ciudad (Chronicles of the City), Fe por San Lazaro (Faith for Saint Lazarus), Ocaso (Sunset), and Tierra Guajira (Rural Land) — the last of which earned Cañibano first prize in the National Hall of Cuban Photography in 1999.
"What sets him apart from his contemporaries is that Cañibano is documenting Cuba's national identity at the end of utopia," Castellanos says. "Cañibano captured the lives of Cuba's campesinos with a dignity and intimacy that resonates today. Unlike stereotypical images of the heroic worker popularized by socialist realism, he ventured into the most inaccessible interior of the island's countryside to live with the people for months at a time."
Indeed, fin-tailed jalopies cruising along El Malecón or the decaying façades of Old Havana buildings are absent from Cañibano's work. Instead, his photos are profound psychological studies of the elderly and infirm who have fallen through the cracks of a system that prides itself on free health care.
Then there are the haunting images of the faithful dragging themselves through the streets during the yearly pilgrimage honoring Saint Lazarus and of humble people living in homes with dirt floors, mud walls, and thatched roofs in areas of the country where there is no electricity or running water.
Cañibano's unique path into photography gives him a different perspective than most people behind a lens.
"I'm a photographer but have never worked for the press," he says. "I only seek to convey a graphic testimony of my time through a very personal interpretation of my own reality."
His work is also informed by his childhood, spent far from the capital city. "As a child, I lived in Manatí in the province of Las Tunas, located in one of the easternmost areas of Cuba and the most rural part of the island," Cañibano says. "That's why I wanted to return there and document a way of life for people and traditions that I identify with."
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One series includes eye-opening images of a farmer emerging from a swamp with a hog-tied caiman slung over his shoulder. In another, a toddler in underwear lies on the dirt floor of his home next to a trio of dead hutias — giant rodents — ready for the cooking pot.
"My intent was to document a way of life that could fade as the years pass and the changes that are taking place as society develops," Cañibano adds. "What I wished to accomplish was to capture the nobility, familiarity, and kindness of the Cuban farmer."
Coincidentally, Aluna is also exhibiting a group show of contemporary Cuban photographers in its project room — including ten images by Alfredo Sarabia, the lensman who inspired Cañibano to swap his welding gear for a Nikon more than two decades ago.
Cañibano says having his work hanging in the same gallery as that of his onetime idol doesn't change his motivation. "I've never thought about fame or money. I only do what I do because of a need for personal expression."