Living in Cuba, Rose Marie Cromwell encountered the strange, the surreal, and the spiritual. With her photos, she wove it into a story full of surprises.
On your website, you write that you’re interested in the space between the political and the spiritual. What does that mean? To me, the political is anything pertaining to the physical world, and the spiritual is the non-physical. In the vaguest sense, that’s what I’m interested in: The interaction between those two worlds. But more specifically, I am fascinated by how people negotiate geography, politics, gender, race with their personal understanding of spirituality.
Your book “El Libro Supremo de la Suerte” (The Supreme Book of Luck), is inspired by the spiritual as well. Can you describe what it depicts? In Cuba, they have a number system from 1 to 100 called La Charada. Each number stands has a different meaning such as bicycle or revolution. People use it to play the underground lottery: If a butterfly comes into your kitchen in the morning, you may consider playing number 2. I liked that people were using La Charada to give meaning to everyday, banal things. And that was how I wanted to portray my own experience of living in the country — not with pictures of old cars and cigars, but with experiences of everyday things.
You assembled them in the book. I love photo books and have always wanted to make one. I realized that putting the work into book form lets me control the viewer’s’ experience and also create a narrative arc. The numbers and the references to La Charada seemed to fit that relationship due to the fact that La Charada is often presented as a booklet…
How do the images relate to the numbers? I was staying at the house of my friend Milagros in Havana, and she was calculating numbers to play in the Cuban underground lottery. And I saw my own phone number in the States written down on one of the papers of her calculations. That relationship seemed really interesting because we had met on the street by chance a few years ago. I photographed that piece of paper and started thinking more about the numbers and how they relate to my images. That’s when I decided to incorporate them into the book as chapter markers.
You have said that you like creating a narrative arc — how are the pictures connected? There’s no developing story, but you start drawing connections between different images in the book in a nonlinear way. I think that is also the way people navigate this world and make sense of different geographies — whether they be tangible or spiritual: Not by chronological order but by making their own connections.
What I find striking about the pictures is that they are tied together not by subject matter but by an almost intuitive visual language. I guess I developed my personal aesthetic during this project. I like to take risks in order to not to get stuck in one way of making images, but there are certain things I am always drawn too. Take the bright light: A lot of photographers don’t like it, but I do — I like the theatrical feeling shadows create and how sunlight allows me to have control: Put something into the shadows, leave something out. That kind of performance became a part of my work halfway through this project: Preconceiving images before making them.
…and in a way, you found yourself set up as well: There’s a story in the book about how you photographed a stick leaning against a wall and later found out that a man had deliberately put it there “because people like looking at it”. I worked as a documentary photographer prior to this project, but I didn’t feel like this approach was honest to my experience there. I didn’t really know what I was trying to say about the country that hadn’t already been said, or that I could add as a non-native. But I am interested in how the macro affects the micro — and noticed you can tell stories more effectively when you center yourself in them. The story of the stick is like that: It makes it obvious to the viewer that I am not trying to hide my voice, but to overtly let them know that this is my story.
As a photographer, the story is of course a very visual one. Next to the bright lights, you show a lot of strong colors. Do you deliberately seek them out? Not really — I plan out the action and performance, but I don’t have the color scheme worked out. And I don’t usually do much post-production. But with the image of the stick that you have mentioned, I can admit that I did: I changed the wall from blue to yellow. I am not really sure why that needed to be yellow, it was just my intuition.
That’s a great example of how colors work in subconscious ways. There’s a book that really influenced my thinking about color: Michael Taussig’s “What Color Is the Sacred?”. He is a philosopher and anthropologist and talks about the relationship between colonialism and color. He thinks that the West, as the colonizers, has always had a discomfort with color. Whereas the people who have been colonized, indigenous populations, have always attached so much meaning and prominence to bright colors. Reading that helped me clarify how I was relating to color in my life.
For example? People say that there are some colors that attract different energies than others. When you don’t want to attract negative energy, you are supposed to wear white. So there are things colors are doing that many in “the west” or Colonizer countries are not aware of, it doesn’t even cross our minds.
…which returns us to the way you have described the spiritual: A non-physical manifestation that affects us, whether we want to or not. Perhaps we should be paying more attention to it? I agree. Colors can seem downright erratic in certain cultures: It almost makes people uncomfortable if someone wears strong colors, for instance. Someone who is used to living in a place like Copenhagen, where they don’t have too much color, it can be startling.
Rose Marie Cromwell is an American photographic and video artist currently living and working between New York, Panama, and Cuba. See more of her work on her website: www.rosemariecromwell.com