Professional photographer and Santa Fe Workshops alumnus Eric Politzer shares his thoughts on photography, workshops, and his latest project: Las Transformistas of Havana, portraits of female impersonator and male-to-female transgender performers in Havana's gay cabarets. All images are © Eric Politzer
Please tell us a little about your background and photographic style.
After working for a very long time in social service organizations, I needed a change of pace. A friend hired me to work for his public relations firm, and I began to shoot for our clients. I got hooked. 6 years ago I decided that if I was serious about this I had to go all in. I don’t really think I have a style as much as an approach: to work with my subjects as collaboratively as possible, to be as attuned to the environment as I can, to try to bring something new to every shoot, and to produce images that make my subjects see themselves differently than they have before.
You’ve taken a number of workshops at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops over the years. How did you get started with us?
I have taken two in Santa Fe and then the one in Cuba. Through Scott Kelby’s blog I heard about this fellow named Joe McNally, who was co-teaching at the Digital Landscape Workshop Series in Kauai. So I went. When I found out that Joe also taught at Santa Fe, I signed right up for his next gig there.
Tell us about your experiences with The Workshops.
I studied with Joe McNally and Jay Maisel in Santa Fe. An embarrassment of riches if you ask me! The two workshops could not have been more different in almost every respect, which refreshing and challenging. For me a couple of the take-aways from Joe’s class were the necessity to fail en route to becoming a better photographer; and always remembering your responsibility to value and respect your subject. From Jay it was the admonition to steep yourself in the history of as many art forms as you can to drive the creativity you bring to your photography; and always to strive to interpret what is in front of you rather than just “taking” a picture.
When did you decide to go to Cuba, and what made you want to go?
I went for the first time with Santa Fe Workshops in April of 2011. Like so many other Americans, I had been intrigued by the history of Cuba and its status at the time as a “forbidden fruit” for US citizens. I yearned for the opportunity to go and shoot in a country that combined such natural beauty and rich culture on the one hand with rampant poverty, decay and social/political oppression on the other.
What inspired Las Transformistas? How did the project begin?
I had wondered for a long time if there was any kind of organized gay community in Cuba. The only thing I could discover about it was a short video on Las Transformistas, which talked about how the cabarets where they performed were a safe place for LGBTQ and straight people to come together. I really wanted to investigate this more.
I had been quite active in LGBTQ civil rights and AIDS service providers for a good part of my adult life. Because of this, I was very aware not only of the discrimination against and struggles of people living on the margins of society, but also of the tremendous contributions they make in fighting for fairness and inclusion for all people.
Was it difficult to gain access to Las Transformistas’ inner world? How did you encourage them to open up to you?
I had made great contacts in Havana during my first trip, and they were able to get me a sit down with the owner of one of the cabarets. He arranged for a shoot with one of his performers. When I returned on the next trip, I brought both of them professionally designed books of her photo shoot. I really believe that the book was the single most important factor in moving the project forward. It demonstrated that I was a professional, that I honored all of my promises, and I was there to document and celebrate Las Transformistas -- not to caricature or sensationalize them. On each subsequent trip I brought the books for everyone I had photographed. The books began making the rounds in the community, and by the end of the project I had no shortage of potential subjects.
One of the things that I found most important about building trust with Las Transformistas was simply showing up, and showing up with a humble, sympathetic and playful attitude that put most of the subjects at ease.
What were the challenges of creating a project like this in Cuba?
Pretty much everything about doing this project in Cuba was a challenge. I could only bring in so much equipment, and even then I was subjected to extensive interrogations about what I was doing there. Since there was such limited phone and Internet service in Cuba, communication with Las Transformistas was very difficult. At the time there was no open gay community to speak of, so finding resources to gain access to Las Transformistas was a non-starter. And then of course there was the tremendous initial suspicion from Las Transformistas about why a Yankee was there doing this kind of project in the first place. I also knew that we were being watched by the police most of the time, so there was no little amount of anxiety that the whole thing could be shut down at any moment without warning and without recourse.
What did you learn during this project, either photographically, or from your subjects?
My original vision of the project was to document the cabarets as social institutions within the LGBTQ world in Cuba. But once I started to hear the stories of what Las Transformistas have to deal with every day in a country with so much cultural, political, and religious opposition to them I became deeply humbled by their extraordinary courage and resiliency. The book then became about them, not about the cabarets.
I also had my belief in photography as a tool for social change validated: we took many of Las Transformistas out into very public spaces – some times iconic Havana sites. None of them had done this before in performance attire. Initially things were pretty tense, but over time they came to own those spaces. They realized they belonged there as much as anyone else. The project had become a form of social empowerment for them. And it empowered me as well: I feel that this project has emboldened me to take many more risks in my work, become much more adaptive to challenging circumstances, and to realize that if a project like this can be done in Cuba then I probably should not sweat most of the stuff that comes up in the daily grind of being a photographer.
To see more of Eric's work, visit his website, ericpolitzer.com. For information on Santa Fe Workshops Cuba programs, visit santafeworkshops.com.