Cuba, El Salvador: Gianfranco Gorgoni by Betsy Sussler

BOMB 5 Spring 1983
Issue 5 005  Spring 1983
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Gianfranco Gorgoni, Havana, 1982. Photo by Sandra Levinson.

Betsy Sussler … I’d like to know how you got started on the Cuban project.

Gianfranco Gorgoni I’ve been in and out of Cuba for the last seven or eight years.

BS Doing photographs on news assignments?

GG Yes, so I ended up meeting a lot of the people. The first time I went on my own because no one would send me and when I came back with some material … in ’74 …

BS How’d you get in?

GG I’m Italian.

BS Oh, of course, not an American—you’re allowed …

GG You are allowed, too.

BS Now I am, but in ’74, I don’t know.

GG Right. So then I showed the work to the Times etc. and I started doing stories for TimeNew York Times, this and that.

BS Journalism or Photo-journalism?

GG Photography … So I ended up meeting at these people on these trips, mainly artists, painters …

BS I don’t understand … Okay. You get called up by a news agency telling you to go to some part of the world because there is something happening, perhaps a place you’ve never been before, and you get there and know nothing of the situation. What sort of strategy do you use to get photographs of events—just walk out into the street?

GG Any place, not Cuba because Cuba is particular, just to get there, you have to explain why you are going there. Let’s say you are going to Beirut.

BS During a war.

GG Okay, during a war. The moment you arrive, if you want to photograph a political event, you need to be accredited to the police because otherwise, imagine every tourist there with a camera. So there is a certain procedure. You go to the police or the government and show your credentials. Here too, if something happens and there are police, and a barrier—if you are not press, you have to move. If you don’t live there, the first thing to do is to have that.

BS How do you find out about information or events that no government could tell you about—for instance a strike or a battle against the government? How do you find out where to go to get pictures that you wouldn’t ordinarily get.

GG It’s up to you—a connection with people. Like how do you find out where to go to see the rebels in El Salvador?

BS Exactly.

GG It’s up to you, if you want to do it …

BS There is an underground network that you have to plug into?

GG Yes.

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Gianfranco Gorgoni, El Salvador, 1982.

BS Does the fact that you are not American help you; make people trust you more?

GG A little bit, yeah. If someone has good intentions, even being an American it is even more appreciated because they need America more than they need Italy. The problem is to find someone here who would be …

BS Empathetic, or at least open …

GG Yeah and really, you know American journalists are always skeptical.

BS Are there particular photographs that your news agency wants.

GG They always want, for example in Cuba, Soviet symbols to show that they are involved—you know that point of view.

BS Whenever you’re dealing with a fragment of what is commonly known as the truth—that is a document, then it’s almost always going to be used as propaganda. And the people who understand it as propaganda … and the ones who use it as such …

GG That’s why in Cuba they are skeptical, too—because they know that no matter how good intentioned you are, once it reaches the press, or the media—it’s always the same people, so they know already, what’s going to be written, and it’s maybe against even the feeling of the writer himself. I have met many people who sympathize … Just to give you an example—in ’78 or ’79, I was doing a story for the New York Times about Cuban schools—you know they are free and also there is an entire island called Island of Youth where there are only schools—a school for Cuba, Algeria, Mozambique, Nicaragua … all the brother countries. Not because they are different—the schools are the same, the same teachers.

BS But they speak different languages …

GG Yes, each school averages maybe six hundred to one thousand kids and they all have land—like from here to Canal St. and then another school—you can see it, they are all in the fields. And these kids, what they do, they pay their own school by working in the fields. The school is for free…The island produces grapefruit—huge, unbelievable. All the grapefruit that Cuba exports is produced there. And the kids have complete control—from beginning to the end. It depends on their ages. If they are ten, maybe they just go and pick grapefruits—if they are 16 or 18, they do heavier jobs. So half the day they spend in school and the other half, in the fields. Now this is already very nice as a human being to say it’s not my father that pays for my school, I am doing it. And then they go back with a degree to their country, or if they want to go on to a University they can do that in Havana or wherever. Now this is a very nice thing.

BS Yeah, it makes education possible to everyone.

GG Now I was at a reception and Castro came. The Minister of Culture, Hernandez, a very nice man, had taken myself and this journalist—a woman from the New York Times—to the island and then a few days later this woman interviewed him. I took pictures, we had lunch, we had drinks—you know the Cubans are like the Italians—very warm. So then there was this reception and he saw me and came over to say hello—”You’re here, how’s it going?” You know this is the Minister of Culture. I said, “Oh, very well.” So then I see Castro is trying to slip away so I said, “Is it possible to get introduced?” He said, “Que segura …” and took me there—we shake hands and he tells him I am a photographer, an Italian doing a study for the New York Times. Hernandez said, “Oh, he’s very nice, I’ve seen his work from before.” And Castro said, “Well, I hope the article is as good as your pictures.” And he was right because it wasn’t.

BS The journalist’s fault or the way it was edited?

GG Well, I don’t know if they changed it …

BS The word still has precedence over the photograph. It doesn’t matter what people see, its meaning can be changed in very subtle ways.

Have you been to Beirut? El Salvador? Do you get a call and have to pack and leave immediately? Are they usually crisis situations?

GG No, I could, but I don’t like it that way. I went to El Salvador but it was because I was already in Mexico and then Guatemala and two days later, there were the elections so I said, I go. I got there and the rebels were around the city and the police would be on an empty long street, and the rebels would be on the other side. No one was shooting but they knew the others were there. I was with another Italian journalist and we see, coming down the street, an old woman who lived there and when she arrived we said, “Well, what’s happening over there?” “All the muchachos, the young boys there,” she said. So I said to my friend, “Let’s go.”

BS And you walked the stretch.

GG And my friend said you’re crazy—I said no, if you start to walk hiding it’s worse. Let’s walk down the middle or the street—so we have the police at our back and then I was more afraid of the police but with the police we showed the pass so they had to let us go. So we start to walk, in the middle, with arms out like this so they could see we had no guns. After some time we start to see movement and then they start to wave at us. I arrived and explained and they could tell right away—they hear my accent and they said put down your hands, put down your hands, and then I see one hundred people—all kids, 16, 18, girls, boys. We stayed with them for three hours. Every once in a while the military would shoot some bazooka at them. Then they were leaving and they said if you want to come with us … but there was no way of coming back.

BS What did they tell you?

GG Not much. They were trying to disturb the elections so they were just hanging around.

BS They felt the elections were fixed.

GG They were a farce. It wasn’t real.

BS Did you feel the people of El Salvador who weren’t actually fighting were on the rebel’s side?

GG Well, when they were leaving, the military was coming so I went into a house—a shack, three or four people. And they said the military tells us that these people are bad and that they kill this and that but to us sometimes they even bring food. But then you meet people, especially in the cities—it’s divided. Because also, they have been doing a lot of crazy things like burning a power plant so that everyone is without water or electricity. But of course, they do it to make the news. You always have to do something very radical to achieve something else.

BS Before you did photo journalism didn’t you do photographs of artists and their work?

GG Umhmm.

BS And you went from that to going to war zones. It’s a big switch, you just fell into it?

GG Well, I started the art documentation because I have always been around, in Italy, and here with painters and artists. I felt more comfortable with artists than people on Madison Ave. When I got here I ended up going to plays—The Performing Garage, and Grotowski. There was all this Off-Off Broadway. So I started doing all this theatre, and then painters and put together a story for an Italian magazine. Then I had to meet Leo (Castelli) because he was representing a lot of those artists. So he set up appointments for me with Oldenburg, Rauschenburg, Jasper Johns, because by myself I couldn’t get them. And then the magazine came out with the cover and 14 pages. So I bring it to Leo with a proposal. I say, “Look, I think this is great—the Pop Art and all but there are all these new people …” like Serra, at that time it was 1969. People who do sculpture in the desert. I just met them by chance. I was photographing Jasper Johns at the gallery and Richard Serra was doing a piece in the corner. I thought he was a mechanic coming to repair something. So anyway, Leo said, “Okay. Give me this proposal and I’ll look for a publisher. “Well, it ended up that he sponsored this book—called The New Avant Garde. So that’s how I got started. And then there was Smithson and Heizer and Walter DeMaria.

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Havana Youth Festival, 1978.

BS You have an agent now?

GG Well the jobs always come from us.

BS Sure but it helps …

GG Yes, because when I’m not around they can contact them and they can contact me.

BS Have you ever been in a situation where you had to photograph people being killed?

GG In El Salvador. I can’t photograph that.

BS What do you do in a situation like that.

GG Luckily when I arrived they were already killed.

BS Who was killed?

GG Six kids. They were discovered in a place and they just shot it all up. Then it was silent for a while and they went in … not only dead, but brains splattered everywhere and the soldiers started to kick the dead. This … I don’t know … when I arrived they were putting them into a truck, one on top of another … That I photographed.

BS Was that photograph printed?

GG I don’t know. Maybe in Europe—no, I don’t think so.

BS You have no editorial control?

GG No, I send them in from wherever …

BS The book that you’re doing now, on Cuba, that situation is different.

GG Yes. After the New York Times job I sent Hernandez, the Minister of Culture, some photographs, his portrait … and he liked them very much and I said look, these are not the photographs printed in the New York Times but that’s what I did. On a later trip I met some artists who told me that in six months they were coming to New York to do a show. And they actually came—so we had dinner at my place and I showed them the movie on New York artists. They invited me to have a show in Cuba. The show took place last November and while I was there, I gave them a copy of the Castelli movie and a copy of The Running Fencebecause this was a cultural organization—La Casa de las Americas. And one of the guys there said, “Oh, we are starting a new editorial project, all in English, for export.” So I was telling him if it’s for export, I was just kidding, you have to do a book like the Christo—none of that stupid paper, you know, color and very nice, slick, otherwise don’t even bother. Because you’re never going to make it. I was a little drunk, we were eating in this bodega, where Hemingway used to go all the time. And I was saying things like, “Don’t make books that talk about how many hospitals you have or how much sugar you made this year. Make a book on the art and the landscape of Cuba—the people. Don’t be afraid to show if the people have no shoes. Just the life of the country.” So they listened to all those things and two days later the Minister of Culture called. And I thought, “Oh, my God, what have I done now.” But I go, and he has the Cristo book on the table and the other guys were there and he said, “These companeros told me your ideas—they’re good. We would like to make a book on Cuba like you suggest. Would you like to do it?” And I said, “What do you mean, me?” And he said, “It was your idea.” So that’s how it happened. Then I come back and I was doing a little project with Viking and I was speaking with this editor and told her the story. And she said, “Oh, yes? Could we co-produce the book?” So they are.

BS Do you prefer having more time to spend with your subjects—a more intimate or familiar approach?

GG No actually if I become too intimate then I don’t even want to take a picture anymore because in a way, I already know the person. Sometimes just taking the picture—the picture is something you take because you don’t know—you can’t see anymore and then it can tell you—what are you feeling … where.

BS I think people have this idea that the document—documentary photography is synonymous with truth because it actually happened. Which confuses the issue because, yes, it did actually happen—but it’s truth is that it’s a photograph not an event. The shutter is opened on a moment out of …

GG And then why it happened. Okay. That happens but why do they reach that moment of confusion?

BS Yes, it’s a misunderstanding of what a moment is. Some do resonate more than others. You haven’t stopped working with other artists, have you?

GG After land art, to a lesser degree. There wasn’t that much to do with Concept Art—but now that people are back in the studios, working with color—the new expressionists. With the conceptual artist it was very difficult because each photograph meant something and I wanted to take the photograph, not explain what I was going to do.

BS And they felt it was a document of their work or a part of their work rather than your photography?

GG Yes.

BS It must be a similar problem with the news photographs. That cutoff point between what’s theirs and what’s yours. You don’t feel particularly anonymous about your work? Do you have a style?

GG No, I don’t know—some people tell me but I don’t know what it is. Style is just appealing. Avedon has a style and anyone could have that style. But Cartier Bresson has a style and not too many people could have that style. You could make a picture like Cartier Bresson but it would be a copy.

BS It would be great to see more Cuban art and vice versa.

GG The Cuban people are very curious about Americans but you know there is an embargo and this doesn’t just mean goods, but ideas and information do not get into Cuba either—books, literature.

There is a US Mission in Cuba, and the head of this, Wayne Smith, wrote an article for a magazine which was later excerpted in the New York Times documenting, with dates, the number of times the Cuban government has approached the US government. And every one of the presidents had turned them down.

BS They want all the negative propaganda to proliferate. You would think that if they were really worried about Russian missiles being launched from Cuba that it would be to our advantage to establish friendly relations with Cuba.

GG Yes, Castro came to the US first but they wouldn’t help him and after two, three years … he had to get aid from somewhere.

BS Castro, to me is one of the greatest leaders of our time.

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Gianfranco Gorgoni, Fidel Castro, Rally at Revolution Square, 1980.

GG Yes, NBC, ABC … would pay millions to get interviews with him but he won’t do it.

BS Barbara Walters.

GG But not again. She’s asked.

BS I don’t blame him. She must have asked him who he slept with five times.

GG Can you imagine? A world leader. A group of journalists met with Arafat once and one of them—of all the questions—asked him if he clipped his beard or was it natural.

BS These people take on such mythical proportions—one wants to re-establish their humanness.

GG But of course they are human. You see, to Americans, Castro and Cuba are synonomous and Castro knows this is very dangerous. There is no star system in Cuba. I went to see a Cuban director, Tomas A. Guitierrez, who directed The Last Supper with another journalist and the journalist couldn’t tell who was who because the director was also working along with everyone else.

BS No auteurs.

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin by Sabine Mirlesse
Broomberg Chanarin 1
Jon Lee Anderson by David L. Ulin

Che Guevara: celebrated warrior, revolutionary leader, figure of myth. In his biography of the Argentine-turned-Cuban hero, John Lee Anderson goes behind the scenes to unearth the man. This article is part of the Bohen Series on Critical Discourse.

LaToya Ruby Frazier and Fred Moten by Dawn Lundy Martin
LaToya Ruby Frazier 1

Two poets and a photographer discuss the presence of absence, the power of the number three, and art as documentation and disruption.

Poetry and the Photo: Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb’s Slant Rhymes by Michael Juliani
Slant Rhymes 1

Chroniclers of restless wanderlust. 

Originally published in

BOMB 5, Spring 1983

JoAnne Akalaitis, Gianfranco Gorgoni, H. M. Koutoukas, Rockets Redglare, Mary Mhoon, James McLure, Nightshift, Olue Kuroeman II, James Purdy, Maris Duval, and Joan Tewkesbury.

Read the issue
Issue 5 005  Spring 1983