Sean Kernan
Portraits from La Habana

English version


- Versión en español -

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The Havana portraits are part of a long-term project that I have been pursuing for a number of years, first in Mexico, then in Rome, recently in Havana. The project was inspired by my first contact with the work of the Mexican portraitist Ermenegildo Bustos.

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My way of working was to set up my small studio, then go out into the street and see who looked interesting to me. Very simple. These pictures were made in a neighbourhood in Old Havana, where I was welcomed warmly and made to feel quite at home.

In the past I think that I worked hard in my photography to frame some kind of meaning that I was interested in. But in these new photos my approach was more reflective of a kind of Taoist wu wei, or non-doing. The term is one that we in the West often take to mean inaction. In fact it means something closer to allowing action, a moment or string of moments, to occur without trying to direct it, while still being highly conscious of what is happening. It assumes that everything has it's own internal trajectory, its Way.

I suppose in the end it's about cultivating awareness, from which still more awareness can arise. I want the awareness because it expands me. I want to become the awareness. The rest is just a box of pictures.

My hope for the pictures is that they will prevent the mind, the viewer's or mine, from snapping right into the usual habits of responding to a portrait. I want the viewer to hang in a place of awareness for as long as possible without concluding, in the hope that they¹ll have a longer experience than they expect to.

My friend John Paul Caponigro once asked me "What is revealed in these portraits?" I hadn't thought of that question when doing the work, and I don¹t have a simple answer now. I know I didn't want to flatter these people or represent them as some idea of mine. I guess I just wanted to be with them and take the moment seriously and see what might come of that, what we might make together. The work was direct and experiential, and the pictures are a byproduct, the shavings of a process done in a state that was both abandoned and very disciplined. This has made for work that arises from me and at the same time tells me things I don't know.

Obviously it's quite a portable project and an open-ended one. And I count on the momentum that a project generates to carry it on. To where? Well, I'd like to do miners in Siberia, indigenous people in the Andes, and perhaps upper class New Yorkers. And I did some preliminary work with the mentally handicapped, which I found very challenging. I'd love to go further with that.

In the end, though, I simply hope to open my eyes and mind.

Sean Kernan


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Sean Kernan is a photographer and writer who lives and works on the Connecticut coast in the US.

Art Focus Gallery, San Miguel de Allende. México, 2001
Photosynkiria, Thessaloniki. Grecia, 2001
Museo de la Ciudad, Santiago de Queretaro. México, 2001
Kunsthaus Santa Fe, San Miguel de Allende. México, 2000
Friends of Photography. San Francisco, 1980, 1999
Whitney Museum. New York, 1982

Ritratti Romani, 2001
The Secret Books (with Jorge Luis Borges) 1999
Innovation/Imagination: 50 Years of Polaroid Photography
New York Times Magazine 1980, 1998, 2000
View Camera (USA) 1996, 1999
Communication Arts (USA) 1994, 1997, 1998
Zoom (Italia) 1997

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