Traveling from Berlin to Havana, Jo Fischer planned on photographing the gay and transsexual scene but the photos that he shot during his time there turned out to be a melancholy ode to the everyday life of Cuban citizens. We caught up with the German photographer upon his return home to ask him more about his travels.
Why did you travel to Cuba? Did you have a certain story or aim in mind before you arrived?
I wanted to travel to Cuba for a long time. I was attracted by the romantic idea of an island that had clearly fallen into a long and deep sleep. But as soon as I arrived at the airport and was taken aside by the immigration officers my desire for discovery evaporated. They confiscated my passport and questioned me for almost an hour. They kept asking me the same questions. Where I come from and what my name is. They accused me of carrying a fake passport and that I was an American citizen. Oddly enough, the interrogation ended with the question, which football club is the biggest in Germany. After answering I was finally allowed to enter the country.
I had the idea to photograph the transsexual community in Havana. That was my main aim. Of course, I was well aware that this might not be possible in just one visit. Lots of people there are very cautious due to constant police surveillance and any contact to a foreigner can cause a great deal of danger. At the same time I also photographed everyday life in Havana in black and white.
How long did you stay in Cuba and how did your relationship to the locals develop?
I was in Cuba for 4 weeks and then spent 4 weeks in Mexico. All in all it was a relatively short journey and normally I’d be away for a lot longer. It was also too short a time to really immerse myself in certain things. A lot of what you see is just in passing. I’ve been to Central and South America quite a lot and the relationship to the locals is always very good. By now I know quite a few people very well and, apart from a few exceptions, most strangers are very open and helpful.
Your candid photos capture a lot of everyday life taking place in shops, houses and on the street. How would you describe the atmosphere on the streets of Havana?
Havana is a very lively city. The people are just trying to get by as best they can and many of them make their money through tourism. I got the impression that Havana is a very open-minded city and the people are very interested in other cultures. I’m not your typical tourist. I like to ask lots of questions and most people answered my questions seriously, as soon as they were sure that nobody else was listening. We really shouldn’t romanticize Havana because a lot of people there are struggling. There is a lot being built in the city. The center is full of new luxury hotels that no normal person can afford. Some of the areas, in which people live, are very run down and they try to build something new with the materials that they find around them.
How did you approach the subjects of your photos? How was the reception to you as a photographer?
The actual focus of my photos series only began to develop when I was in Havana. I started exploring the gay and transsexual scene, because although it is not actually forbidden on Cuba, these people suffer a lot at the hands of the government. I gained access to a man from this scene and a day later I visited a club where I came into contact with several transsexuals. They were very interested in my work and I began to photograph them, although this only took place in private houses. That was the concept of this series.
There’s a subtle kind of melancholy in a lot of your shots. Was it your aim to create this feeling in your photography or was it simply a byproduct of capturing what you saw around you?
It’s probably due to the fact that I’m a reflective person by nature and when entering new situations I’m always very careful that I don’t destroy them. I want to capture the moment, just as it occurs. I am very quiet and often the byproduct becomes the main focus. The actual idea I start out with then becomes less and less my focus.
What inspires you the most about travel photography? Can you name a few travel photographers you are inspired by?
If I’m honest, I have to admit that a travel photographer has never really inspired me. I like the work of Steve McCurry and lots of photos by Bresson, but they were never the reason that I decided to go on certain travels. What fascinates me about these photographers is that they manage to create a visual explosion with a powerful message from a seemingly banal situation and all by using the simplest of methods. That’s my main aim but I have lots of time to achieve it!
How do you choose the projects/stories to cover? What do you have planned for the future?
Where to start? I have so many ideas, so many stories in my head. I don’t think I have time to cover them all within my life. My aim is to always capture live itself. I’m addicted to portraits, light and shadow and being on the road. I think that it’s this mixture, which always motivates me to leave Germany. What actually results from this depends on the place, the people and my own state of mind. I can never really plan things. That would destroy my spontaneity.
What camera did you shoot with? Did you shoot analogue or digital? Why?
I photograph exclusively with Leica. Normally I use my Leica M ( Typ 240) and the Leica Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH. For this trip I also took my Leica Q and I was pleased with how easy it was to use. Small, light and very inconspicuous, not forgetting the unbelievable quality of the images. In the past year I have been shooting a lot for a big solo exhibition and Leica was kind enough to provide me with a Leica SL. I photograph mostly digital. The simple reason being that it’s quicker. With my Leica M6 I can get very similar results to those I get with the Leica M. Nevertheless, when I’m shooting portraits at my studio in Berlin I always choose analogue.
When did you start shooting with Leica? How has your relationship to Leica developed over the years?
I’ve been shooting with Leica for 7 years now. Back then I was working on a big project for Nintendo and put on three exhibitions with those photos in well-known galleries. The client had very high demands and I really wanted to realize these with a Leica. Back then I had the chance to buy a new Leica M9 with three lenses from a friend of my gallerist. I didn’t have to think about it for long. Since then I’ve really fallen for the technology and there’s probably no way back for me now!
What do you consider the advantages of shooting with Leica cameras?
The great advantage of the Leica M is its size and ease of use. Every time I use it I’m also aware that I’m holding a piece of camera history and I really like the look and feel of a time gone by in the photos themselves.
Is there anything else you would like to add about your time in Cuba? Any other stories/experiences you would like to share with us from you time shooting on the road?
It’s always worth traveling! As a photographer you can learn a lot while traveling and call on these experiences when working on certain jobs. Especially in Central and South America there’s such a broad spectrum of cultural diversity, which can’t really be found anywhere else. There’s still so much to photograph, from the Baja California to the Tierra del Fuego. One thing that I would say to every travel photographer is to not be afraid of the terrible reports you hear in the media. If you steer clear of certain areas and stick to the advice of the locals, then travel far away from the typical tourist towns can be truly life changing.