In an exclusive interview, ROOSTERGNN spoke to Ellen Silverman, a New York City based photographer who for over 20 years has specialized in food photography. In May of 2014, she received her MFA in Photography, Video and Related Media from The School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Over the past six years, she has traveled to Cuba seven times, each trip focused on one of 3 different projects inspired by her experiences. The projects include a series of photographs of Cuban kitchens, a cookbook –The Cuban Table,- a video -‘My roots lie here’ about four elderly Cubans who have lived in their homes all of their lives. On her last trip, she started a new series of portraits of people in their homes. The common thread to all of her work is that ultimately, she is exploring her own inner relationship to herself and feelings of being grounded in her own ‘home’, both in a spiritual and literal sense.
What do you like most about photographing Cuba?
There is never a moment when I am not inspired by something I see in Cuba. I have to remind myself to go slowly and take time to just look and not to shoot everything that catches my eye. It is important to have moments of quiet to take time to absorb and reflect on what you are seeing and to talk to people. If you always have a camera up to your eye, then I believe that you miss a lot of what is going on around you.
Cuba is a country where it is possible to rather easily make connections with people. One of the joys for me is meeting people and then photographing them and or their homes. It makes the photographs less anonymous for me. I am a people person and relish the opportunity to not only photograph a person, an interior or someone in a market but to share a moment with them.
Your first project was a series of kitchen photos which became an exhibit entitled Spare Beauty – Cuban Kitchens. Can you tell us about some highlights of exploring Cuban kitchens? Any interesting anecdotes?
After my first trip to Cuba in 2010 with the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, I was so visually inspired that I knew I had to find a reason to return. As a food photographer, food as a subject is always on my mind so the idea of photographing kitchens was a natural choice for me. This project was the first of 4 projects that have been inspired by my trips to Cuba.
On that first trip I met a Cuban photographer, Carlos Otero, who subsequently became a dear friend and collaborator. For many years he had been photographing bedrooms all over Cuba. He liked the idea of kitchens and offered to help me find people who were willing to allow me to photograph their kitchens. We would meet early in the morning and begin walking the streets of Havana randomly entering buildings, knocking on doors, explaining my project to people.
Many people invited us in – but it usually took a lot of cajoling and explaining. In general people were suspicious of our motives but ultimately with an amused or quizzical look on their faces they agreed to allow me to photograph their kitchens.
Early one morning we met a woman standing by her open front door. She immediately refused us but after a lengthy conversation, which led to the revelation that both she and her husband were artists she agreed to let us in to at least have a look at their kitchen. It happened to be my birthday, within an hour it was agreed that I could take the photograph. By 10:30 am, photographs taken, we were deep into conversation about art and drinking rum to toast my birthday!
One of the things that I found the most interesting is people’s need, no matter what their circumstances are, to have some decorative element in their homes. You see this throughout these photographs whether it is something as simple as a decorative potholder hanging on the wall or a china cup that has survived through the years sitting on a shelf, or a vase of plastic flowers placed in the middle of the kitchen table – always with an eye towards beautifying their environment.
You subsequently conceived of a Cuban cookbook, the recently published The Cuban Table: A Celebration of Food, Flavors and History with Cuban-American food writer Ana Sofía Peláez. What is your personal favorite among all the Cuban recipes? Why?
While working on the kitchen series, I conceived of the idea of a Cuban cookbook. This was a perfect project for me as I was able to have a great deal of input into the book from beginning to end which was a luxury. Once again Carlos accompanied me on this project.
We traveled all over Cuba photographing for the book. The book is so rich with not only recipes and people’s stories about their recipes but with photographs which visually tell the story of Cuban food. We were very fortunate to work with BJ Berti, our editor at St Martins Press who gave us complete freedom to create the book that we wanted as well as to have continuous input throughout the design process.
There are so many favorite photographs and recipes that it is difficult to choose just one to share. Flan, Masas de Puerco or simply the Mariquitas with lime and cilantro vinaigrette . . .
What are your three favorite restaurants in Havana? And in Cuba as a whole? What do you like about them and what should one order there?
Since my first trip to Havana so many new restaurants have opened due to the relaxation of government restrictions on owning private businesses. And with the increase in tourism there are plenty of people to frequent them.
When I first went to Cuba I was warned that the food was awful, that it was necessary to bring food with me or I would be hungry. This was absolutely not true!
Carlos knows all of the best places to eat whether we are in Havana or traveling in the countryside. Never was I hungry or at a loss for something tasty to eat! Some of my favorite restaurants in Havana are Dona Eutimia, which is well known attracting tourists as well as locals. It is well worth a meal. My favorite dish is a traditional Cuban dish, ropa vieja made with lamb.
Another favorite are two restaurants, 304 O’Reilly and El Del Frente both owned by brothers Jose Carlos and Julio Imperatori; both restaurants are across from one another on O’Reilly Street. They are constantly busy with a mix of Cubans and tourists, great music is always playing, excellent cocktails are served and the food is delicious!
If you still have room stop by Helad’oro, Calle Aguiar 206 for some of their irresistible and locally made gelato.
On the road to Vinales is a farm, Las Masas which also has a not to be missed paladar – a family run restaurant. Food is served on their terrace and is always busy with families eating their unbelievably rich masa de puerto, chunks of pork are simmered for hours in lard and water over a wood fire until all of the fat is rendered. This leaves the most tender and flavorful piece of pork you can imagine eating. Save room for the flan. The direction is Municipal Guanajay, Autopsist Pinar del Rio ( the turnoff is between km 22-24 on the road heading east toward Havana – tel # 53-5-244-7420)
Another favorite spot outside of Havana is in Vinales, Finca Agroecológica El Paraíso. This is a sustainable farm and restaurant. Wilfredo García and his family started this farm on land given to them by the government in 2010. Begin with the thirst quenching “anti-stress” smoothie they offer you upon arrival then eat family style on the porch of a typical country house which overlooks the farm and valley below. García’s daughter Rachel is the chef behind the healthier interpretation of traditional Cuban food including lots of pickled vegetables an unusual offering on a Cuban menu. After your meal make sure to take a stroll through their gardens. Once in Vinales just ask for directions, tel #53-4-868-4780.
Your third project, My Roots Lie Here, is a video about four elderly Cubans who have lived in their homes all of their life. Can you tell us any interesting anecdotes while shooting this?
After finishing the cookbook my eye traveled beyond food and the kitchen into the rest of the house! I have always had a fascination with interiors, how people live in their homes and what they choose to surround themselves with. You can tell so much about a person by walking through the rooms of their home and observing their possessions and how they live with them.
For this project I moved from the still image to motion and created a slow contemplative video about four elderly Cubans who have lived in their homes all or nearly all of their lives. What they revealed to me was the importance of their homes to their well being.
One woman revealed to me, that although it was now difficult to live in her large home in the Vedado section of Havana since her husband died, she knew that if she this house where she has lived for the past 55 years she would die sooner than if she stayed there. The other three people all in their own way expressed the same sentiment.
Luis, who is the first subject of ‘My roots lie here” says “I am rooted here like an ancient tree”. One of the unexpected joys of making this video was that I was able to get to know four seemingly ordinary but actually extraordinary elderly people. They all welcomed us into their homes, made themselves completely available and actively participated in the filming process. There were so many truly amazing moments during the filming of this project.
The first time I met Luis, while he was waiting for us to connect him to a microphone for an interview he began to sing. When I went back several months later to continue shooting I asked him if I could record him singing, which he readily agreed to. The next morning when we arrived he took a neatly folded piece of paper out of his shirt pocked, in his beautiful script he had written a list of songs that he was prepared to sing for us!
Once the film was complete we were able to show Luis his section. He sat transfixed nodding his approval, very pleased but wanting to know why it wasn’t longer!
What advice can you give for aspiring photographers and/or videographers looking to document Cuba, its people and its cuisine?
Cuba is a rich, vibrant and complicated country pulsing with life. If you close your eyes you can hear and feel the rhythm of the country. It is easy top get swept up in the energy and life of Cuba and her people. If you go try to see as much of the country as possible. For a small island it has a variety of landscape from the city life of Havana to the mountains, jungle, coast, smaller villages, lush farming area of Pinar del Rio and colonial towns. At first the visual excitement of Havana is overwhelming – go slowly observe and take time to take in all that is happening around you. People are welcoming and often doors to their homes are open. This is not an invitation to enter but occasionally you may have the opportunity to meet someone and strike up a conversation. Today Cuba is probably one if the most desired destinations for photographers there are many groups that offer trips specific to photographers such as The Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. If you choose to go on your own it is a good idea to rent a car and drive outside of Havana to explore the rest of the county. There are more and more production services available for photographers and filmmakers. The best advice I can offer is to go and start shooting! Also make sure to visit Fabrica de Arte in the Vedado section of Havana this is an old factory that has been converted into an art center it is part gallery space and part club. There you will find, art, photography, dance, films, live music, theater, food and a lively international bar scene.
Find out more about Ellen Silverman on her website at www.ellensilverman.com