27th August 2019
Iconic photos of iconic leaders. Pictures that shaped generations. The images of photographer Roberto Salas include many Cuba classics that will never be matched. Having seen his work in books, magazines and on the internet for years, I was very excited to speak with him.
Part of this equation was my 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, which augmented my respect for his work and multiplied my list of questions for the interview. However, I tried to focus down on the essential – how he started so young and rose so quickly in importance for Revolutionary Cuba, and above all, how Roberto managed to capture such natural images of powerful, charismatic leaders.
My conversation with Salas was via a WhatsApp call, but with our Cuba culture tours, Wild Frontiers’ guests have the unique opportunity to sit down with Roberto in his Havana studio to view his immortal photographs firsthand, while sharing his memories and enjoying his sharp humor and honest opinions about enigmatic Cuba.
A quick glance at Roberto Salas’ bio must start with his father. Roberto learned photography from his father Osvaldo, who at 15 had immigrated from Cuba to New York. Osvaldo made a slow but successful transition from making darkroom gear for professional photographers to making his own images. His work included immortal shots of legends like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro.
At age 15, Roberto also took up photography and his timing could not have been better. It was a key moment and place in Cuban history. The aspiring Cuban revolution was trying to drum up U.S. support to oust the Batista dictatorship, and thanks to his father Osvaldo, Roberto met Cuban rebel leader Fidel Castro at his father’s New York studio. That meeting appears to have left a mark on the creative mind of Roberto.
Born and raised in the shadow of the very symbol of freedom for the U.S. public, Roberto now 16, realized he could help draw attention to Cuba’s quest for liberty with a photograph. With the help of some friends, he hung a July 26 rebel movement flag from the crown of New York’s Statue of Liberty and snapped a dynamically composed and highly symbolic photograph of the scene from below.
As Roberto recalled in our conversation “it was a dead day for the press… and it made the papers in New York very heavily, was carried by the wire services and even LIFE Magazine published it.”
Just a teenager, Roberto Salas’ career was launched in a big way with a stunning image seen around the world.
Apparently, Fidel Castro was also impressed, for he soon granted Roberto access to one of the world’s most controversial and charismatic leaders of the 20th century: himself. Not much later Roberto was also photographing Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh and key events of his time. Many of the most memorable photographs ever taken of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro were shot by Roberto.
It is easy to see in his work that Roberto not only has a sharp sense of composition but that his greatest gift is capturing charismatic, dynamic figures at their most natural. All good documentary photographers strive to be invisible, to photograph their subject as if they did not exist, but for Revolutionary Cuba, no one succeeded as well as Roberto Salas.
Whether it be Che with a cigar grinning, Fidel in a hammock relaxing, or both of them together illuminated by a match lighting Fidel’s cigar, there is a certain intimacy that can only come with complete confidence between the photographer and his subject, one that permits the photographer to “disappear” and not be felt by the viewer.
I asked Roberto about this in our conversation, but he shrugged it off, claiming modestly that Fidel Castro “from a photographic viewpoint was a very easy person to work with, he never bothered us saying yes to this or no to that, or I want this or don’t want that, he never put his two cents in.”
Roberto refused to wax poetic about his work or methodology. In an age of excessive vanity, with millions creating self-portraits of their every movement and broadcasting it over social media, how refreshing is the modesty and honesty of this classic photographer.
My guess is that the sharp mind of Fidel Castro was keenly aware that Roberto Salas was an expert in capturing him as a common man, without airs or pretence. What could be more flattering for a man of the people? What is harder to ascertain is if Castro and Che appreciated the uncluttered artistic beauty of Salas’ work.
We spoke on a whole range of subjects, but later came back to this point, and Roberto was finally more willing to address his talent for capturing powerful people in moments of ease, “For me, there is something curious, it calls attention to some people. I have never been, you might say, impressed by personalities. I worked at the United Nations, took pictures of different people, was in the war in Vietnam, I took photos of Ho Chi Minh in his home. But none of that ever impressed me. In other words, for me it was always just a normal person, it never affected me.”
I pressed him further on this subject, asking him if photographing dynamic figures changed him in any way. How about someone like Che Guevara, who later became an immortal pop figure?
Mr. Salas zoomed in tighter on his particular gift, explaining, “I took it as a goal. They are all just like any other person. It still makes no difference to me. Maybe that is reflected in the work. I consider that it is very fresh and spontaneous, and very down to earth you might say.”
Indeed, Salas captured his subjects at their most authentic and unpretentious and that is why his work lives on today.
Whereas we are blessed to enjoy the work of many classic photographers from a distance through their work, few, if any, are willing to invite a total stranger into their studio and just have a chat about life, work and country. This opportunity should not be missed for lovers of art, photography or history.
I asked Roberto why he was willing to do exactly this. He reasoned, “It keeps me going. I am not into gyms or jogging at my age, but your mind, you have to keep it working. It helps me and it is a good way of getting to know people. There is so much said about this country, so much news from one side or the other. People have a lot of doubts, I can give them my point of view. People are surprised, the last thing people are going to expect is me. This guy born in the Bronx, who grew up in the States and ended up living in Havana and being one of the guys who took pictures of Castro. I think it’s an attraction for people.”
As he spoke, I was imagining myself sitting with him in his studio, rummaging over immortal black and white images, listening to his great stories, all the while silently deciding which bills not to pay this month to be able to acquire one. I asked him if visitors will be able to see prints, “I always show prints, the visits are a micro-conference on what I was doing at that moment, how I got there, how I made the photograph.”
In my mind I continued on my way home after my imaginary face to face with Roberto, clutching one of his classic black & whites to frame and hang in my living room. I finally asked him if visitors will have the chance to buy one of his prints and he replied slyly, “Oh definitely, that’s how I pay for my dog’s food for God’s sake!” When my laughter died down, I thanked him and told him I hope to meet him in person one day. In a dig at ever-shifting U.S. – Cuba policy he quipped, “You better hurry up before they close the door and then you have to visit by parachute.”
Roberto continues to make photographs, now with a digital camera. Recently he has been experimenting with different textures in a series of new color images of urban Cuba. This latest work will be featured in an exhibit in Havana in October 2019.