Kevin Slack grew up in a farm of Ontario, Canada. As a student of Visual Arts and English, Kevin soon found out that he could be happier next to a good companion: his camera. As a child, he drew his future with images jealously guarded in his retina. However, life always leads us through byways before we reach our main road. After working in a bank and travelling across Corea and Ecuador, Kevin decided to escape from routine and let himself be led by his heart. Latin sweat enveloped him, heating up his Anglo-Saxon roots and never again forgot to dream about his real paradise: Cuba.
How would Kevin Slack introduce himself as a photographer? How were your beginnings?
I had two notable mis-starts as a photographer. I took a photography course in grade 5 when I was about 10 or 11. With a girlfriend, we developed a concept that was outrageously scandalous, or it would have been had we known any shame which we didn’t. Luckily those photos are long-since lost. Later, I was a painting student in University and I took one course in photographer. This was still about ten years before digital photography. It was useful to develop film and work in a dark room but I produced nothing of any value. Mostly because, as I remember, I had the sort of art teacher who liked to talk about the meaning of a thing more than the beauty of a thing and so I remember I took photos with my brain rather than my eyes or my heart or my soul. Otherwise, my career as a photographer in Cuba was mostly an accident. There was a particular trip where I shot a few pictures – mostly candid street life and some sports boys as well as some boxers – and it wasn’t until I got home that I got really excited about the photographs and was overwhelmed with the desire to take more as soon as I could.
How did Kevin Slack find out that photography would make him happy?
You know, I’ve been building my portfolio of photography, and mainly of Cuba, and mainly of Cuban men, for nearly 10 years. And most of that was all selfish, most of that was all for me. And it made me happy. That is, a beautiful photograph made me happy. It’s only been in the last two years that I’ve gotten any real attention for the work that I’ve been doing. And it’s so unusual and so flattering still when anybody pays any attention, whether it’s a fan, or a blog, or an art student, or even a buyer. Flattery is nice. Attention is nice. But what still makes me happy is the photograph. And the story behind the photograph. What makes me happy, too, is the process: the process of finding models, of earning their trust, of putting together a space and models and a story. It requires, often in no small part, ingenuity, patience, collaboration, and, frankly, cajones. But when it works it is deeply thrilling and satisfying.
Your first visit to Cuba…
Was in 2000. I thought I would be happy at a resort and we went to Varadero. I loved the sugar-textured sand. But after two or three days of this, of bland resort food, of swimming pool bars, of European and Canadian tourists, I got on a bus to Havana, about a three hour bus ride. At the end of it, the bus goes down a slope, through a tunnel, and you rise up, you rise up into this sudden and beautiful and romantic city: Havana. It was love at first sight. When I pass through that tunnel – and I did just a couple of weeks ago – I still remember the first time. With one exception, I have never gone back to a resort in Varadero.
There is a loneliness, a melancholy, a special light in Kevin Slack’s photography. The sad youth he shoots in ruinous rooms, is it the norm of Cuban beauty?
Hmm? You’re the first to say so. I don’t consciously look for sad or melancholic. However, Cuba is crumbling. Cuba is a beautiful disaster. Cuba is a ruins. And I have conflicted and complicated feelings about Cuba, about the beautiful disaster. There is so much joy and resilience and strength there. And, yes, there is so much tragedy and desperation too. And, well, at a party, I have always preferred the quiet lonely introvert to the joyful extrovert. So I might have an affinity there.
Do you have to fall in love with a model’s body in order to bring out the best of that body in a photo?
Short answer: no. Although I am always a little in love when I am in Cuba. It’s a chemical reaction. It could be the heat. It could be the salt water smell in the air. It could be the music. It could be the theater. And my favourite place to be is falling in love. And I don’t want to be accused of not being shallow enough: I love Cuban men. They have a ferocity that marks me. So many have strength and courage and so many, too, have these beautiful lithe sun-burnished bodies. Let me take the question backwards: In order to bring the best out of a model, I look for commitment and trust and a willingness to collaborate together and push each other’s limits.
Hot Latin blood makes for good pictures?
Surely, yes. What’s not to love? But there’s more than that too. There’ s an openness and a vulnerability and strength too. It’s a characteristic, it’s a number of characteristics, that seduces me. There’s a very male strength and confidence, swagger even. But there’s also a complete openness and vulnerability. And sexuality is so fluid and so, so vivid and unashamed. And all of that without the off-putting sense of entitlement or vanity that I have seen in professional models.
What does Kevin Slack ask a model at the time of posing?
Before I set up a shoot, it’s important that I understand the model’s limits. With nudity, with working with other models. Because I often set up a shoot with something fairly specific in mind. Although my intentions can often change during a photo shoot. By the time models are on a shoot, they usually already know what I expect of them.
How would Kevin Slack define the eroticism of his photography?
In this case, better to leave this to the talkers and the thinkers. I’d rather do. And I suppose that’s a kind of answer. Defining the erotic, even my own personal erotic, is treacherous and probably harmful too. Seduction is wanting. And wanting is not knowing. If my images can still manage to seduce me – even though I was there, even though I know exactly what happened a moment before or a moment after, then that is good enough for me.
How and what ideas come for a photo shoot?
Concepts are always organic and changing. Sometimes I change my ideas based on the light. Sometimes I change my ideas based on the space I can find. Sometimes I change my ideas based on the chemistry of the models. Sometimes I am stubborn with a concept and will search out the right waterfall or the right beach. I like it when models offer ideas so that the experience becomes a dialogue, a collaboration. I always leave Cuba, I always pack up and head back to Canada, with more plans than when I got there. It’s the biggest reason I keep going back.
What images of your many trips to Cuba always come back to your retina?
It’s funny the images that stick with me. The handball boys stay with me because they were the beautiful accident that started all of this. Really, the images that I respond to most are almost always the accidents. An accident of light or of time. It’s not the organized well-planned shoots that stick with me. It’s the stranger in the street playing soccer. The boy I never met on the beach. It’s the fleeting and the unknown that sticks with me.
What’s beauty for Kevin Slack…
Beauty like pornography might be hard to define; but I know it when I see it. Beauty might be that moment of joy, but it is more likely – at least for me – the moment of anticipating joy, or the moment of remembering joy, or the moment of remembering anticipating joy. We might live only to discover beauty but in the end it should have many names rather than just one. An appreciation of beauty might be the best justification for living that I can think of.
Your favourite picture?
No matter how I try to resolve an answer here, I can’t. Ask the zoo keeper to pick his favorite animal. Ask the kaleidoscope-maker to pick his favorite fragment. I am always searching out the perfect photograph. I haven’t found it yet which is why I still work.
What feelings do your sojourns in Cuba provoke?
Let me talk about my last trip. Since it is fresh. Many of the things I love about Cuba are injuring Cuba, are devastating my Cuban friends. For the most part, and in a very tangible and evident way, Cuba has been crippled for more than fifty years. The star-spangled dream, the red-white-and-blue monolith of consumerism and democracy lives right next door. And for more than fifty years Cuba has been steadfastly defiant. At the very least, you have to admire the force of that conviction, the constitution of that resistance. Havana in particular is other-worldly: the architecture, the ruins, the feeling of far-stretching time, the presence of ghosts and history everywhere – it really ought to be impossible, but there it is. Like a castle in the clouds. And there is little to mar the illusion, there is no McDonald’s, no modern skyscrapers, no neon billboards to interrupt and disturb that beautiful illusion that you are someplace else, some time else. But if it looks like Cezanne’s apple on the outside, it’s still rotten and hollow and eaten-through on the inside. Or to go back to the castle in the clouds, there is nothing to support the precarious beauty. I love the joy of life I see everywhere. I try to tell my Cuban friends that in Canada, it’s cold and grey and we hide in our houses and we don’t know our neighbors and we work and we work and we talk about celebrities and mortgages. But in Cuba, there is theater everywhere. There are people everywhere. There is joy and beauty everywhere. And at least as far as I can see, they know how to live, they know how to love, they dance and drink and smoke and fuck and celebrate life.
But this past trip, friends I have had for years were more desperate than I have seen. It was a common and distressing theme. If they wanted a future, they had to get out of Cuba. Because there was no future in Cuba. And so the motivated and those with the means will leave if they can. And who will stay behind? And even still, they love their country. In the same breath, they will say they have to leave and that they love their country. And so it turns out that so much of what I love about Cuba, so much of what I used to love, so much of what I want to love, is damaging very seriously my Cuban friends. This is not news, exactly. It was just a lot more immediate this last time. And so, it’s like loving a beautiful tragedy that hasn’t quite come to its end yet. It’s like the fourth act of Romeo and Juliet. You already know it will end badly. But the bad ending hasn’t come yet. And so there is expectation and fear too.
Broken down rooms, two young people embraced, hot bodies burning with desire, scorching nights, young people having fun while they dream of escaping, noisy streets, voices, a sticky sun, the vitality of a youth who play and love, the light of Havana’s pier, the dances, the muggy siestas, the sweaty dawn, broken buildings, dreams in a child’s eyes, a sweltering sun. Lovers sleeping a siesta, the passion of those in love… What image would be your favourite?
That sounds like a catalogue of my work, Jesus. Or a catalogue of the work I would like to have. If I could get it real and honest and genuine, the lovers sleeping a siesta – but after expectation, after that burning of love and anticipation, after that season of mad waiting, and after the passion too, that moment, just after, of waiting now satisfied, that moment, just after, of total vivid joyous honesty between two lovers spent. But I would want it real. And to get it real, I would have to follow two patient long-waiting lovers. It might be the perfect photograph for Cuba. Waiting, not baseball, is Cuba’s national past-time.
Is Cuba Kevin Slack’s dreamed paradise?
It might have been. And if I were purely selfish, it could still be. But I’m borrowing someone else’s tragedy. I see the beauty in it only because I’m outside of it: like the insect in the amber, or the butterfly in the sealed jar.
Can an Anglo-Saxon like you understand Cuba’s soul?
I can try. And I try. I can want to. And I do. But I will inevitably fail. I can learn the language. I can study salsa. I can read Cuban writers. I can make Cuban friends. But in the end, I will fail, because I am outside of it. And even if I had the means to live there now – and believe me I would if I could – I could try harder; and I would still fail. Because my perspective is already and incontrovertibly the perspective of an outsider, an extranero. It doesn’t mean that the effort is wasted. Let’s say I can go stare at Picasso’s Guernica for a year. I can study the pieces. I can study the whole. But I am not Picasso. And this is not 1937. By the end of it, I might know the painting, I might guess the intent, but how can I know Picasso’s soul, or Spain’s soul? But it doesn’t mean that I don’t want to; and it doesn’t mean that I won’t stop trying.
What does Cuba smell like?
The smell hits me when I get off the plane. It’s like a cologne of an old lover. It infuses my soul and wakes me up. It’s a tropical humidity, first. And tones of saltwater on the trade winds. And, in Havana, in the mad rush of Havana, diesel and hot metal.
How is homosexuality lived in Cuba’s present reality?
Technically, homosexuality has not been illegal since 1979 in Cuba. But it’s still difficult to be openly gay in Cuba. There is only one gay establishment that I know of in Havana, on Calle 23: it looks like an over-lit cafeteria and nothing has so far persuaded me to go in it. Among the more macho, there is still very much the notion in Cuba of maricon and bugarron; you are not really gay unless you are a bottom, unless you are passive. But there is also a delightful fluidity of sexuality. I have been at parties with guys who were mostly straight, guys who were mostly gay, and guys who were firmly in the middle. And, at least as far as I could tell, nobody really cared. And I find that fascinating and so refreshing. We name things to tell them apart and keep them distinct: gay, straight, bi. At least according to my experiences, Cuba is much less concerned with those sort of social distinctions.
Salsa, Danzón, Mambo… I think Kevin Slack is an expert dancer of Latin rhythms…
I love to dance. I love to be overwhelmed with the rhythm but I’m a white travesty when it comes to dancing. I dance from the waist up. I keep intending to take classes but I continue to worry that I will be unteachable which is worse than just being bad.
The most beautiful thing that Kevin Slack has seen in Cuba?
I cannot pick. Jorge Luis who is no doubt beautiful but his soul and his ambition and his motivation and his humility too light up a room. Orly who is interminably optimistic and equally electric. Monica with her sad almond eyes and her happy transparent poetic soul. It’s funny that I translated thing to person so quickly. Or the generosity of so many who have so little. Or just the bloody resilience of it all.
Will you leave your Canadian life some day for Cuba’s light?
I am all alive in Cuba. There’s no question. But I have to imagine that I love Cuba more than it would love me. Still, if I could manage a way I should sincerely like to figure out how.
It’s inevitable to ask about Cuba’s actual political situation. What options does Kevin Slack see for Castro’s regime in the near future?
Every time I go to Cuba, I think it can’t get any worse. And every time I get there, I realize that it is, that it is measurably worse. I respect Fidel Castro. Or at least I think that I do. I’m reasonably sure he loves his country. Some of it, later on, might be stubbornness. What they have really is a Revolution of Defiance. But defiance is really only reaction. There is no action. No action that makes any sense or does any good. Meanwhile Cuba is afraid of change. Anybody that can make any real change is afraid of change. It’s hard to understand a country that can stop your friend and take him aside and interview him and put him in handcuffs and take him to prison right in front of you for the crime of walking with you. That kind of state control is, well, terrifying. But it’s more than that, it’s more than control, it’s also censorship and it’s also unimaginable poverty. There’s just no money. The winter of the Patriarch will come. But I’m not as convinced as I was before that it will make much difference.
In the end, Cuba will require intervention. It seems inevitable to me. And it seems imminent too. Because Cuba is on the edge of crises. Cuba is past the edge of crises as far as I can tell. It’s standing out on the edge of the plank of crises. But I continue to think this and it continues to worsen. They figure out ways to extend that plank of crises. And I’m not as convinced as I used to be that changing the current regime will have any spontaneous effect. Cuba is politically atrophied.
A real image that Kevin Slack has seen and which would portray homosexual love in Cuba…
On weekend nights, when the young people have nowhere else to go, they hang out by the bell shaped trees at Calle 23 and Avenida de los Presidentes. Even though they likely haven’t got enough money to take a taxi or go to a club, they wear fashionable clothes. Reliably, the space fills with young lovers. There is music and singing and drinking. A young boy plays his guitar, a bolero. Girls talk and laugh. And two boys of about seventeen stand nearby, the taller one stands behind the shorter one holding him tightly, affectionately. It is not the hug of brothers or even drunken best friends. And the most charming and remarkable thing about this is that it appears entirely unremarkable. Nobody cares. It is brilliant exactly because it is ordinary.
Finally, your next projects?
So many of my friends and fans want me to try another country. But for me, as I said, I always leave Cuba with more ideas than when I got there. And for me, because Cuba needs to change, I always have this sense of urgency that I have to get, I have to get all the juice out of the fruit, before it falls to the ground. The photographs that preoccupy my mind the most are always the ones that I didn’t take, the ones that I missed.
Kevin Slack website: http://www.snappedshots.com/
Copyright: Kevin Slack-Burbujas De Deseo.