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Zapata Swamp, in Cuba’s southern coast and less than a hundred miles from Havana, is commonly imagined as a remote wildlife refuge for mangrove, crocodiles and exotic birds. Isolation, hard work and extreme poverty have kept the Swamp’s human inhabitants disconnected from the contemporary reality of the country, and certainly from the world beyond our embargoed shores. While the Cuban government promotes a process of “modernization” and fantasies of consumption filter through these new openings, Coalmen toil in the swamp, following an ancient process to produce charcoal for export and earn their survival.
This project explores the quotidian patterns and rituals of the Coalmen’s lives, their environment and their families. Coalmen devote their days to producing wealth they’ll never see, for a system they live on the margins of, while on the other side of the Island we yearn for material possessions and modern technology. I use the camera to magnify details of seemingly unimportant moments, looking to extract some understanding of their contentment, happiness and our shared humanity. This series should not be confused for a romantic interpretation of scarcity, but an exploration of the rhythm and logic of a simple existence that responds directly to context and circumstance and is firmly grounded in the present.
This project is a reconnection to my origins as a photographer, when I developed film in my childhood bedroom during the hot nights with home-made chemicals and old equipment inherited from friends who had migrated. It’s a homage to those principled masters I learned to observe the world with, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sebasti?o Salgado, Josef Koudelka and Eugene Smith. It’s a tribute to the men that labour in the heat and humidity of the swamp, with tools and techniques from another time, producing the charcoal that will light fires and fade into embers in distant, unimaginable places.
Arien Chang Castan is an award-winning documentary photographer who lives and works in Havana, Cuba. At the beginnings of his career as an artist, he devoted himself to painting, and later discovered in photography both the expression of his personality and a way to document recondite settings in Cuba. Arien’s work focuses in areas within Cuban society that are generally ignored in Cuban documentary photography. Themes like the rodeo, gay culture, and bodybuilding are reflected in his work, always portrayed with an artistic, conceptual vision that enriches the image. Arien has collaborated with the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops and National Geographic and has taught workshops to students from CalPoly, San Jose State University, and NYU. He has traveled and exhibited his work at conferences and festivals in Cuba and around the world including Australia, China and Venezuela. Arien made his first exhibition in the United States in 2014.