Mi Calle: Cuba by Joseph L. Scarpaci

©Babak Salari, My Street Cuban Stories














Mi calle. Historias cubanas. Diana Ivanova and Babak Salari, (Eds.) Plovdiv, Bulgaria: Janet 45 Ltd, 2010. 147 pp, notes and photographs. $12.00 paperback (ISBN 978-954-491-605-3)

Mi calle is a part of a multinational book project that began in Bulgaria in 2006 by Diana Ivanova and Boris Deliradev. Initially supported by the British Council of Bulgaria, the concept was part of a broader endeavor, “The European Union and Me,” which culminated with a book publication and a traveling exhibition. Mi calle was carried out by the editors, Bulgarian writer and journalist-anthropologist Diana Ivanova, and the Canadian-Iranian photographer, Babak Salari. Both ‘authors’ (though technically they are editors) traveled to Cuba in 2009 where they met, mainly through key informants, mostly young people in Havana, San José de las Lajas, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Holguín, Gibara and Santiago de Cuba. They asked fifty-two residents to write about their streets and neighborhoods and to take photographs of them as well. (More information about the methodology of the project can be had at their website, http://www.my-street.org/

Readers will immediately recognize this and related participatory projects in which ‘locals’ are asked by ‘outsiders’ to share knowledge with a larger community in the form of short stories, poems, photographs, oral histories, and related forms of testimony and witness. Mi calle presents them in their original Spanish, though Bulgarian and English versions of the work are also available at the website noted above.

The topics covered in these short essays include tales of pleasant and nosey neighbors, songs and smells that punctuate the streetscape as strongly as the tropical sun, the look of the street, familiar landmarks that stand as silent witnesses to the passing of time, reflections of where intimate moments occurred, and other facets of daily living (la vida cotidiana). It is the sort of humanist and cultural geographies that appear to have faded away under the post-modernist gaze.

To the authors’ credit, this is no political whitewashing of a country that is often overly romanticized. Writer Betsy Diaz, 15, from Centro Habana, mentions the nearly ubiquitous presence of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). Mayte Cueto from Arroyo Naranjo describes the importance of Afro-Cuban religions as a prelude to her 70-year old neighbor, Carmelina. And Alexis Alvarez, 28, from San José de las Lajas remarks on the apolitical aura of his neighborhood: “Mi barrio es tranquilo y cada vecino es peculiar. No se hacen guardias cederistas [CDR neighborhood-watch duty], no se celebran festividades de comité y eso me gusta” (91). The use of metaphor is refreshing, and story number 37, Amor sin condón, reflects the creative play on words when the reader least expects it.

Mi calle suggests numerous possibilities for Latinamericanists concerned about place attachment, vernacular landscape, and local expression. Readers with just a few years of high-school Spanish and a pocket dictionary can make their way through these pages. It would make for a wonderful companion for anyone traveling through the island since each historia carries a title, the author’s name and age, and his or her street address
210 Journal of Latin American Geography

and town name. Why not visit them, get their autograph, and engage them? The book would lend itself nicely to a class with students who would be interested in what other young people think and write about the island. It would also serve as a model for a field course in any city, town, or hamlet in Latin America and the Caribbean. This refreshing genre of travel and sightseeing in such a high-tech age has seen an upsurge in recent years. Lending the locals’ disposable cameras is also a strong complement to the texts, and Mi Calle is laced with color photographs on every other page, most by locals, and some by co-author Salari who is trained as professional photographer and documentary filmmaker.
Tales of longing and stories of wanting and melancholy make Mi calle a delightful portal to the human condition in Cuba. The book offers inductive, ethnographic insights into a world few of us can imagine. Testimonies like these will underscore many of the reasons field researchers chose their line of inquiry in the first place. For some readers, it will provide respite in a nomothetic world characterized by SOCIAL THEORY in capital letters, while avoiding the pitfalls of idiographic research. As the subtitle of the work portends, there are many stories and many histories to these places, and Ivanova and Salari provide an intriguing window to fifty-two of them. Academicians searching for a reason to conduct prolonged study-abroad courses might use this as a service-learning model where the foreign participants share tales of their own streets. Imagine the possibilities.

Joseph L. Scarpaci
The Havana Consulting Group
Blacksburg, Virginia


Mi calle. Historias cubanas (review)
Journal of Latin American Geography – Volume 10, Number 1, 2011, pp. 209-210


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Cultural Crossroads interview by Stefan Christoff



November 6th, 2008
Cultural Crossroads: Babak Salari – Web exclusive! http://www.hour.ca/news/news.aspx?iIDArticle=15986
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New bent on the Cuban revolution
Stefan Christoff

Salari: All smiles
photo: Peter Berra

Montreal is a vibrant international center for artistic expression and culture production. Cultural Crossroads is a new interview series on hour.ca that features in depth conversations with Montreal’s leading artists and cultural actors, all who of whom are inspiring new and innovative forms of artistic expression and thinking here and around the world.
Cultural Crossroads interviews Iranian-born Montrealer Babak Salari on his new book of photography about Cuba’s queer artistic scenes

Representations of Cuban culture internationally are often turned into symbols or clichés of a post-revolutionary society. Images of Cuba’s revolutionary era adorn t-shirts, websites and apartment walls around the world. But seldom are the contemporary voices from the social and cultural edges of Cuba featured.

Montreal photographer Babak Salari has recently published a book on queer culture in Cuba, which directly explores the new modes of social dissent within Cuban society as expressed by queer artists and intellectuals, communities historically marginalized in Cuba. Salari’s book Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories not only offers striking photography, but is also documents the complexities of queer identity in Cuba within Cuban elite cultural milieus and at a popular level.

As the fiftieth anniversary of Cuba’s revolution approaches, Babak Salari’s book is an extremely important document on Cuban society today, recorded by a world class photographer who has documented the lives of the oppressed in multiple corners of the world – the Middle, East Asia and Latin America.

Here Hour journalist Stefan Christoff speaks with Salari concerning his most recently published work for our monthly online in-depth interview series, Cultural Crossroads.

Hour In the opening commentary for the book, your portraits are presented as a documentation of life on the edges of Cuban society – a revolutionary society – can you expand on this point?

Babak Salari A focal point

for my photography is those who are marginalized: those impacted by war, those forced into exile and also minorities in any society living without full rights.

The project in Cuba was based on exploring the margins of society. It began in 2001, focusing on the most marginalized queers in Cuba – people who never have a chance to talk. The second part in the book is focused on queer artists who are expressing themselves in Cuba.

For many years queer artists represented a taboo culture in Cuba, as queers generally couldn’t express themselves openly but queer artists were celebrated – a major social contradiction. Bringing together these two realities was a goal for the book, a project highlighting both the queer community of Cuba generally, but also specifically highlighting queer Cuban artists and intellectuals.

A key goal for the entire project and those Cuban artists collaborating on the project, including poet Jorge Espinosa Mendoza and writer Roberto Zurbano Torres, was to bring these two realities, these two distinct queer experiences in Cuba, together within the same cover.

Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories, by Babak Salari (Havana, Cuba 2001)

Many queer Cuban artists have gained national attention and can express themselves through their art, although their sexuality remained taboo, remained in the closet.

Hour Portraits in the book are very intimate; the photos seem to capture the moments between the private world and the public world for queers in Cuba. Can you talk about that experience, interacting, mapping and photographing these moments in Cuba?

Salari After spending two years in Cuba, people allowed me access to their daily experiences, their daily lives. It took time to gain this trust given my status in Cuba as an outsider.

Photos in the book capture the human moments of queers in Cuba, both the public and private moments, attempting to portray extremely complex identities.

Hour Today, there is growing international recognition of art produced in Cuba. In Montreal this past year at the Musée des beaux-arts featured a major exhibition focusing on Cuban art, featuring revolutionary imagery that continues to serve as an inspiration for many on the left internationally. What are your thoughts on the role of contemporary art in Cuban society, as compared to classic Cuban revolutionary art? Can you address how your photography addresses that artistic intersection between contemporary dissent in Cuban society and art’s historical role as a revolutionary force in Cuba?

Babak Salari My photography on Cuba explores the parts of society that are hidden. Many understand Cuba in clichés, which are reinforced through activities on most tourist trips to the country. However, my work touches on the more subtle, unknown elements in Cuban society, powerful elements of current Cuban culture not widely known.

Cuba is so often defined through cliché imagery: Che Guvera emblems, or revolutionary imagery, or Salsa dancing – all which are important to Cuban society, but Cuba is home to much more complexity.

Today queer culture in Cuba is recognized but not always openly, like within the work of nationally celebrated artists like theatre director Carlos Díaz. Such artists represent new changes taking place within Cuba, as part of an internal struggle for change. It is through modern Cuban dance, literature and art that you can best learn about new social modes within Cuba.

Cuban society felt familiar to me as an Iranian who also experienced revolution. In Iran, many people, especially artists and revolutionaries, are very familiar with Cuban politics and culture – but not the contemporary complexities that we are discussing, especially not queer culture.

Hour One understanding of change in Cuba, common in North America, is defined by the country’s transfer to a free market economy. Creating a ‘free market’ economy certainly isn’t the only possible framework for post-revolutionary change in Cuba. Through your photography, you can feel the tensions within many Cuban artistic circles on the different possibilities for change in Cuba, can you address these complexities?

Salari In discussing these issues with Cuban artists and intellectuals it is apparent that change in Cuba is constant, it is ongoing. Artists featured in the book, operating within the social circles in Cuba that are familiar to me, are all pushing for indigenous ideas for change; for change to take place from within Cuban society.

As someone from Iran who has experienced exile for a quarter of a century, the current issues being addressed in Cuba are familiar to me in a way. Many Cubans featured in the book also explored possibilities of leaving Cuba and trying to push for change in exile. However, those featured in the book choose to stay, to push for change from within, which is an important current to the book.

My own experience of exile has defined my life and also my relationship to Iran, so these questions had a special resonance to my own experience.

Traces of change are apparent in Cuba today. Many artists express themselves by pushing against social barriers, queer artists especially. In contradiction to that internal process of change in Cuba is the U.S.-driven change which aims to impose a capitalist market society in Cuba, modeled after the U.S., which obviously will only increase social inequities.

In Cuba there is free medical care, easily accessible across the country for all, while in the U.S. many die because of lack of medical treatment. So it is clear why many in Cuba struggling for change also oppose the possibility of a “U.S.-modeled change” being imposed on Cuba. For real change to happen in Cuba it is critical to support those fighting for positive change within Cuban society. [Real] change is not about breaking open Cuban markets to U.S. investments, or trying to turn Cuba into a giant American casino.

Cuba is very complex; there are many races in Cuba, many different cultures and origins. It is very interesting to view and try to document this process of change taking place within Cuba, a process not apparent to most looking at Cuba from the outside.

Hour How did your own experiences with revolution and revolutionary culture in Iran shape your photographic work and experiences in Cuba?

Salari In Iran, many from my generation are familiar with the Cuban revolution and were influenced by Cuban revolutionary culture. Iran has experienced an entirely different history, has a very different culture and different traditions, still, many in Iran closely followed Cuba.

Many in Iran are very supportive towards the Cuban revolution. After experiencing exile from Iran, exile from a revolution, my thoughts on Cuba became more critical and complex. It is from this point on that my interest in exploring the edges of Cuban society developed.

In Cuba, it was striking to see reflections of my own background and past experiences within revolutionary Iran. Experiences in Iran lead me to ask more complicated questions concerning present day Cuba, leading me to explore the margins of Cuban society, a process that finally lead to the photography book.

Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories (Janet 45 Press, $30)
For more info, visit printing.janet45.com
For Babak Salari’s website, see www.babaksalari.com

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Glimpses of queer Cuba by Mathew Hayes

Glimpses of
queer Cuba


>>Montreal photographer Babak Salari
captures a gay subculture


Babak Salari says that the more time he spent in Cuba, the more powerful the connection felt. Salari, a Montreal-based photographer, began to travel to Cuba over seven years ago, both for pleasure and to capture images. But as his research grew, Salari, an Iranian-born refugee who fled the country in 1982, could intuit the strong connection between Cuban and Iranian cultures.

“Iranian culture is a homophobic one,” says the 48-year-old. “The president there denies everything. I felt very personally connected to the culture in Cuba. This subculture is largely one you don’t see in Cuba. I felt this very strong parallel between the two communities.”

Thus Salari became more and more drawn in by his subjects, almost 100 of which are printed in his new book, Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories (Janet 45 Press, $30). With a powerful forthrightness and simplicity, Salari captures the lives of gays, lesbians and the transgendered in Cuba. Cast in stunning black and white, the images are clearly empowering for the subjects, presented without any hint of apology. Salari, an experienced photographer who has also documented the lives of Afghans, indicates a respect for his subjects that makes his photos feel less voyeuristic and more celebratory as a result. And he does what outstanding photographers can do, when faced with the lives of the marginalized: he makes that which has been rendered invisible visible.

“When I first went there, I was familiar with the politics of the Cuban government,” he recalls. “But I was not so familiar with the gay community there. My information was really very limited—I had seen Before Night Falls [the 2000 film about a gay artist who flees Cuba] but not much more than that.”

But as Salari spent more time there, he would meet up with one or two gay Cubans, and this would prove a crucial starting point to his introduction to the entire community. From there, he would be introduced to more queer Cubans and would gain trust, allowing for his photography to begin.

NO APOLOGIES: Images of gay cuba (above and top)

Cultural divide

Salari says he saw a divide in the Cuban queer community. He perceives that life is much easier for gays if they’re part of the intelligentsia. A number of artists, writers and intellectuals work quite openly there as queer people, though there are still obvious restrictions in terms of government censorship. “I know a theater director there, who works frequently, and everyone goes to see his shows. Everyone knows he’s gay, it’s not an issue for him. He gets respect. As well, I know a lesbian artist who explores her sexuality in her work. But if you’re a sex worker, it’s a different story. I wanted to bring both of these worlds together in the photographs.”

Salari managed to get this series of photos exhibited in Havana, at a gallery. He says it was well received but, not surprisingly, there was little or no press coverage around it.

While a number of gay Cubans have emigrated to Canada, Salari says things are changing there. “Since 2001, I sense a shift in attitudes there. I think things have opened up a bit.” He also argues that Cuban culture itself is unique in the Latino world: “Cuban culture is a mix of Latino, African and a revolutionary culture. It really is quite different from, say, Mexican culture.” This, he says, makes it an especially rich place for an artist to explore.

Salari also says that Cuban drag culture is also quite vibrant—if underground. “Drag shows are held privately, but are big—as many as 500 people will show up. The police know about them, of course, but they’re kept quiet.”

Salari was especially happy about one transsexual he convinced to participate. “She was quite discreet about it, but I managed to get her to open up and we developed a friendship. I invited her to the show in Havana. She blossomed as being a part of the show. She opened up, talking about how difficult it was for her to come out, to go through the process of being herself. This was one of the best stories to come out of the book.”

The launch of Faces, Bodies,
Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories

(by Salari with text by
Norge Espinosa Mendoza)
will be held this Saturday,
March 29, at Mekic Gallery
(4438 de la Roche), 5–7 p.m


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Traumas and Miracles by Maria Doneva

Traumas and Miracles by Maria Doneva
Posted on December 31, 2010 by admin

Traumas and miracles; catastrophes and salvations; desperations and anticipations – in a black-and-white book by photographer Babak Salari and writer Diana Ivanova.
It is as personal as a poetry book. The photographs intense and saturated.
There is no color here, no surplus, no ornament.
Just like the lives of the book’s subjects – energetic, steely people surviving through steely times.
Images that taste of rain, of rust and blood.
Faces and hands and necks covered in scars and lines – from laughter, from pain, from old age.
And the inhabitants of an intimate world – the stove, the cat, the mirror, the dog, the goat, the garden, the floral shirt.
All captions uttered sparsely, as if through pressed lips.
This book radiates a deep but restrained sentiment; a respect for the people; and a curiosity for a civilization which sinks into the past with dignified simplicity.
Translated from Bulgarian
Radmila Mladenova

“Traumas and Miracles: Portraits from Northwestern Bulgaria”

Tracing the collective memory through photographs
For, when we will no longer exist, nobody will be able to testify on our behalf. There will be nothing left but the indifferent nature.
(Roland Barthes, La camera lucida)

The great authenticity of Babak Salari’s photographic work derives from his experiential contemplation of human existence in exile – a human existence violently deported or simply living on the margins of the society. The charm of his pictures, however, stems from their narrative power, from the way they reflect in black and white stories difficult to tell without evoking a strong emotional charge. The wandering of the self-exiled artist at places traumatized by the war, goes far beyond the simple testimony of a documentary photographer. His clear and penetrating gaze, acts as a mirror, and reveals aspects of the portrayed faces that he looks upon; it reveals wounds and fragments of their identity. The sense of a primordial realism, intimate and humanistic runs through the artist’s photographic corpus dispersed in a wider anthropogeographical map. From war victims in Afghanistan and Iraq to the uprooted people of Palestine and from the matriarchal communities in Mexico to the gay communities of Cuba, Salari is searching underneath the surface for the real face, and tries to reveal for us the unsaid, albeit discreetly. More than this he activates memories.

In the book “Traumas and Miracles: Portraits from Northwestern Bulgaria”, published by the Bulgarian publishing house Janet 45, with Babak Salari’s photographs and Diana Ivanova’s texts, the reader has the possibility to experience a sample of his new artistic project, which was also presented on Aug 2010 in the National Gallery of Sofia. This naturalized Canadian of Iranian origin, while moving away from his previous themes, has remained faithful to his deeply humanistic spirit. He has travelled along with the journalist and writer Diana Ivanova to the birthplace of the latter, a place traumatized by consecutive political and economic crises in the postwar era. This particular photographic work, consisting of more than 2000 black and white photographs, is the fruit of a series of meetings and interviews with some of the remaining dwellers in the area. In one of the poorest spots in Europe, faces aged by the ravages of time and history, “are offered” in front of Salaris’s camera in the most silent and unaffectedly touching way. Gazes and bodies, spaces and objects are presented in a state of loneliness and abandonment, loss and frustration.
In the published book the accompanying brief texts beside selected photographs, illuminate for us the life of the persons contained within them, sometimes via simple comments and at other times through the voices of the subjects, which touch us especially in terms of their simplicity and truth. Finally the dialogue between the two contributors and Ivanova’s introductory text clarify for us the motivation that led them to the concept of this specific project.

The faces

People of nine villages in Northwestern Bulgaria fill the camera lens of Salari. Female migration has exacerbated the depleted populations of these already ageing populations. These are places that carry the wounds of past with them, intensively. Under the burden of sweeping political and social change these forgotten “last guardians”, as Ivanova calls them, are filled with memories deprived of any kind of nostalgia while at the same time they witness a cruel reality: the gradual devastation of their villages and the end of an era.
In the “Portraits from Northwestern Bulgaria” the biographical element meets the psychographic one in a unique way. In every image we find human stories, and each story is a reflection that traces the trauma and afflictions of the persons contained within. Their gaze, an element expressed in previous works of the artist, reveals important aspects of their character. Additionally the tightened lips, the neck, the hands and the body posture are the detail that completes their substance and helps us to understand them better.
Salari as a visual poet shares with us the faces he shoots and their own depth. But his look here obtains a more intense sadness. A memory of life and even a suspicion of death run over most of his photographs. If poverty and material decay augur a certain death, it is the bright shadow of these bodies that makes them magnificent: the particular aura which accompanies these bodies in the various shades of grey reflects signs of a different kind, such as obstinacy and dignity, submission and abandonment, desolation and uncertainty. Most of all, we hear their deafening loneliness.

The places

In this series the scenic mastery of the photographer seems more mature than ever. The pictures of the faces have been shot in their natural environment, in house interiors, and even in yards or streets. Sometimes the scenery is even more minimal, a plain wall, a staircase, a window. In any case it is all about a standing place, which is filled with human absenceand memories. A place of silence, desolation and decay, where even life seems frozen in the time. Interestingly, in some photographs we can sense a kind of sociability, there is a yearning to heal and console at the same time.

The stories

As with Salari’s previous photographic series, the people narrate their own shocking stories. Faces worn down by hard labour have survived the collapse of two political systems, economic collapse and political crisis. The history is reflected in their bodies as a palimpsest of traumatical experiences: the ideological denial, the poverty, the migration, the gradual devastation and the end of their villages. On the other hand they hold a faith towards the mysteries of life that derives from an old tradition. Babak Salari’s photographs in dialogue with Diana Ivanova’s texts map the memories of both the individual and the collective, the frustration but also the hope of a society that is gradually approaching closure.

A world so close to us

According to Roland Barthes “a photograph is subversive not when stimulating or stigmatizing but when reflective… when it makes you reflect on life, death, or on the merciless extinction of the generations”. In these few inhabitants of Northwestern Bulgaria we can recognize the signs of a society familiar to us, of a gradually shrinking society as evidenced by many Greek villages every time we visit them. Such visits make us feel some temporary euphoria, but such visits also give us an identical lump in our throats and the same feelings of melancholy. The only difference is that in Babak Salari’s photographs we experience these signs in a more captivating way; the faces that stand before us, despite the feelings of tenderness and love that emerge from within, hold deep inside the scar of History.

Kalliopi Poutouroglou

Translation from Greek by: Domna Iordanidou
Special thanks to Sevastiana Mikrouli, and Anthony Montgomery

Kalliopi Poutouroglou is a film critic for the web magazine, Cinephilia.gr, and teacher of Greek language in Greece and abroad.

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Review of Faces, Bodies, Personas: by Scott Larson

Review from Journal of Latin American Geography, Volume 10, Number 1, 2011

by Scott Larson

Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories. Babak Salari,, Plovdiv: Janet-45 Print and Pub- lishing, 2008. 120 pp., photos, biographic notes. US$25.00 paper (ISBN 9-5449-1412-9).

Living any form of alternative lifestyle in contemporary Cuba is a complicated proposition. Even to be Cuban is to be isolated – and not only from the political and eco- nomic rhythms of the rest of the world, but the social and psychological currents as well. So to be gay on the enigmatic island is to enter into the realm of the outsider’s outsider, a netherworld of sexual and identity politics where merely waking up can become an existential journey. For sure, the days when homosexuality was considered a crime by the eager social engineers of the revolution are long gone. In 2010 Fidel Castro even went so far in an interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada to express his regret over “moments of great injustice” to Cuba’s gay community. But still today certain aspects of homosexual behavior – holding hands in public, for instance, and other outward shows of affection – can bring official sanction in the form of arrest, steep fines or the loss of a job, and a long-standing and powerful cultural tradition of machismo only contributes to the forces of marginalization. In Cuba, to live openly as a queer, a lesbian, a transvestite or gay man invites considerable risk.216 Journal of Latin American Geography

In Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories, the Canadian-Iranian photog- rapher Babak Salari focuses his camera on life at this margin of Cuban society. The resulting collection of black and white images – first exhibited at the Provincial Centre of Fine Arts and Design in Havana in 2006 – offers a penetrating glimpse into what, in a companion essay, the Cuban poet, playwright and journalist Norge Espinosa Mendoza calls “the secret tradition of Cuban gays” (p. 18). Studying the images more than two years after they were first shown, Espinosa writes: “When I see the portraits now I under- stand the looks in the eyes – which a fragile time on the wall makes eternal – form a map of what those lives were, a map of desires that can serve as a hidden guide” (p. 7).

Salari is hardly the first visual artist to explore the evocative universe of Cu- ban homosexuality. Indeed, recent representations of gay Cuba have come to occupy a special niche in the cultural imagination of the wider world, and a number of works engaging in the theme have gained critical and popular acclaim. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s hugely successful 1993 film Fresa y chocolate is just one example. Yet as Espinosa’s intima- tion of secrets and mystery suggests, many of these mainstream projects fail to plumb beyond stereotyped spaces of erotic tension and political intrigue where drag queens stage beauty pageants at fabulous underground fiestas. To Espinosa, who owns a singular perspective as both critical commentator on and subject of Salari’s lens, the result is all too often mere artistic voyeurism, a cynical, unwelcome gaze that provides little deeper insight into the lives of the majority of Cuban gays (p. 22).

Salari’s work rejects this ideal of exotic otherness to focus instead on the more mundane, day-to-day aspects of gay life in the impoverished, improvised space-time of 21st-century Cuba. As in the exhibition, the images in Faces are divided into two the- matic sets. The largest of the two, entitled Faces, comes at the end and is comprised of portraits of artists, writers, poets, musicians, academics and filmmakers, many of whom are gay or otherwise work to “fill some vacuums that other cultural discourses have si- lenced” (p. 114). These are public, if not celebrity figures who have been simultaneously embraced and demonized, revered and ostracized as they judiciously navigate a cultural landscape rotted through by “discrimination and contempt” (p. 20). In his essay, en- titled “A Map of Desires,” Espinosa writes of these figures – his fellow “creators”– by name, and their portraits appear alongside short biographical sketches, descriptions of their work that serve as testimonials to a certain status and hard-won legitimacy. Few are household names, even inside Cuba, but through their works they have earned the right, the possibility at least of public voice.

The figures in the photographs of the opening section, Bodies and Personas, have no such luxury. As in Faces, all of the photographs in this section are posed, but these were taken among the rundown rowhouses, backstreets and featureless rooms in Havana where the subjects live and work. They depict a poignant normalcy in which the sparse surroundings speak to an almost claustrophobic sense of distance and isola- tion – a young woman sits rigid on a bed, her eyes empty and emotionless, as a figure in white – a Santeria priest? A lover? A doctor? – rubs lotion on her chest; two transvestites lean against a wall looking nowhere in particular; an angelic face is cleaved in two by the frame of a folding mirror. These images convey a position of outsiderness even within a wider community of marginalization. Not so much as a name, date or mention of place accompanies their portraits. Yet they, too, as Espinosa notes, are artists in their own right, masters in the art of survival.

What connects the two sets of images is a shared and very powerful sense of being, a palpable statement of presence that is made more dramatic by the fact that in many of the photographs the subjects simply stare off the page. They gaze outward, as if toward a wider world that exists only in the distance, beyond some unseen horizon out a bedroom window, an apartment door, the frame of a photograph.

At first this seems casual, perhaps even accidental or a stylistic quirk. But the longer one contemplates Salari’s images a purposeful narrative of individuality and ex- pression emerges. “Cubans’ only real possession is the bodies that invariably accompany them,” Espinosa notes (p. 8). There is a collective agency and ownership in the act of posing, and Salari’s subjects have seized it. They may be looking somewhere else, toward a world of possibility that they both mimic and reject, but their gaze is deliberate and their message is as strikingly simple as it is clear: We are here, we exist, and we are Cubans, too.

Scott Larson
Department of Urban Affairs and Planning Hunter College



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Book Opening


CONTACT: Babak Salari
MONTREAL, QUEBEC, April 10, 2011
Photographer Babak Salari has returned to Montreal for the Canadian launch of his new book:
4438, rue de la Roche, Montréal, Qc
Friday, April 15, 2011, at 7 PM.

David Hopkins, former chairman of the Department of Photography in Dawson College in Montreal, will be introducing Babak Salari’s new book.
Following an impressive opening at the National Art Gallery of Bulgaria in Sofia, the exhibition and book traveled to Il Palmerino in Florence and the Human Sciences Centre in Vienna.This is the first presentation of Babak Salari’s new book to a Canadian audience.
For, when we will no longer exist, nobody will be able to testify on our behalf. There will be nothing left but the indifferent nature. (Roland Barthes, La camera Lucida)


The idea of this book was born from discussions between Babak Salari and Diana Ivanova in the village of Bela Rechka in Bulgaria. Motivated by their personal experiences, Babak and Diana considered and contemplated the political changes that followed the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989. Bela Rechka recalled for Babak his grand parents’ village in Iran, a home he can no longer return to. While Diana’s return to Bela Rechka was a step towards understanding her roots and appreciate her late mother’s fear of change after the politically turbulent times of 1989. Through these discussions Babak and Diana realized that they needed to know what had happened to these rural communities and their senior citizens in the last 20 years, following the collapse.
In the summer of 2008, Babak and Diana, traveled to nine villages in Northwest Bulgaria where they photographed and interviewed the oldest residents, who nowadays represent the majority of the population in the region. This book is but a small portion of Babak and Diana’s total efforts. They hope that this book will be an advocacy for this people, who struggle in what now is one of the poorest regions of the European Union.

Traumas and Miracles, Portraits from Northwestern Bulgaria
Photography by Babak Salari
Text by Diana Ivanova
120 pages
Published by Janet 45 print and publishing

For additional information on the opening at MEKIC, please contact the gallery at 514-373-5777, visit  www.mekic.ca or contact info@babaksalari.com. The gallery is located at 4438, rue de la Roche, Montreal QC. The exhibition is taking place on Friday, Apri 15, 2011, at 7 PM.

Babak Salari is a Montreal-based photographer and educator who chronicles lives at the margins of society. His documentary projects include: Iranian artists in exile; matriarchal, indigenous communities in Mexico; and gays and transvestites in Cuba. Recently, he documented those displaced and brutalized by war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. His interest in photography began as a teenager in his native Iran where he contributed to various publications. At the age of twenty-one, his political activities resulted in his imprisonment for six months by the Khomeini regime. Upon his temporary release from jail, he fled to Pakistan and, a year later, arrived in Canada where he resumed his study and practice of photography. His new photo-documentary Traumas and Miracles Portraits from Northwestern Bulgaria, is dealing with the sense of disorientation, loss, pain and isolation.
Babak Salari’s work has been exhibited internationally including: The National Art Gallery in Sofia, Bulgaria, the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki, Greece, and Centro Historico in Merida, Mexico, and published in several magazines.
His four main publications Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories and Remembering the People of Afghanistan, My Street Cuban Stories, Traumas and Miracles Portraits from Northwestern Bulgaria, were published by Janet 45 in Bulgaria in 2008, 2009, 2010 respectively. He has received many awards including a Gold Addy from the American Ad Federation in 2004 for his work Locating Afghanistan.


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Photography workshop!

Workshop in Creative Photography
Bela Rechka, Bulgaria
by photographer Babak Salari (Canada/Iran)


Category: Creative Photography
Duration: One week, 7-14 August 2011
Number of participants: 10-20
Fee: 425 BGN (if you book till 1st of April)
475 BGN(if you book till 1st of August)
Level: Beginners to Advanced
What to bring: SLR camera and tripod; personal laptop (optional)
This workshop is designed to answer your current questions and confusions as an active or aspiring photographer. Following the success of three photography workshops held in Bella Rechka in 2009 and 2010, it is meant to train you in both the technical and artistic aspects of photography. Participants will learn how to control the camera, explore different qualities of light, make proper use of the lens and, most importantly, learn about the creative role of composition in the visual arts. Through daily technical exercises, in-group and individual, students will learn to use the medium of photography to express feeling and tell a story. Participants will also learn to review each other’s works and assignments, deepening their artistic and personal understanding of the photographic art form. Advance level students will get a chance to concentrate on the social aspects of photography and create a body of personal or academic work in Bela Rechka’s friendly and open village atmosphere.

Final project: Over the course of the workshop students will be expected to think about a final project and compose a short proposal defining its theme. Together, we will travel the road of developing a project from concept to photographic images.

Projection/Exhibition: The one-week workshop will result in a final public presentation in the former village School .The best three projects will also be presented in a venue in Sofia and in other places. Your preparation for the end-of-week Projection/Exhibition will develop your presentation skills and teach you the art of sequencing artworks on the wall.

Note: The fee includes: accommodation in the village with breakfasts (clean, simple and modest conditions)

All other meals will be provided and paid separately on place (local food prepared by local people) Participants will cover all transport costs to Bela Rechka.

Note: The New Culture Foundation will provide two scholarships for students with less financial possibilities – will cover all expenses and transport costs for the workshop. If you want to apply for a scholarship, write a motivation letter and explain why you need assistance.

Payment method:

BIC:RZBBBGSF, Reiffeisenbank,
Sofia 1504, ul.Gogol 18/20, SWIFT RZBBBGSF
Reference: photography

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Open letter of Jafar Panahi to Berlinale 61!

The world of a filmmaker is marked by the interplay between reality and dreams. The filmmaker uses reality as his inspiration, paints it with the color of his imagination, and creates a film that is a projection of his hopes and dreams.

The reality is I have been kept from making films for the past five years and am now officially sentenced to be deprived of this right for another twenty years. But I know I will keep on turning my dreams into films in my imagination. I admit as a socially conscious
filmmaker that I won’t be able to portray the daily problems and concerns of my people, but I won’t deny myself dreaming that after twenty years all the problems will be gone and I’ll be making films about the peace and prosperity in my country when I get a chance to
do so again.
The reality is they have deprived me of thinking and writing for twenty years, but they can not keep me from dreaming that in twenty years inquisition and intimidation will be replaced by freedom and free thinking.
They have deprived me of seeing the world for twenty years. I hope that when I am free, I will be able to travel in a world without any geographic, ethnic, and ideological barriers, where people live together freely and peacefully regardless of their beliefs and convictions. They have condemned me to twenty years of silence. Yet in my dreams, I scream for a time when we can tolerate each other, respect each other’s opinions, and live for each other.

Ultimately, the reality of my verdict is that I must spend six years in jail. I’ll live for the next six years hoping that my dreams will become reality. I wish my fellow filmmakers in every corner of the world would create such great films that by the time I leave the prison I will be inspired to continue to live in the world they have dreamed of in their films. So from now on, and for the next twenty years, I’m forced to be silent. I’m forced not to be able to see, I’m forced not to be able to think, I’m forced not to be able to make films.
I submit to the reality of the captivity and the captors. I will look for the manifestation of my dreams in your films, hoping to find in them what I have been deprived of.

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Yet, another review about Cuba!

A Review from Curator MABEL LLEVAT in Spanish Art Magazine “Interartive” about Rene Pena, Babak Salari and Alejandro González:


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Mi Calle Cuba, in Bulgaria National TV!

Mi Calle Cuba, 28′ Bulgaria/Cuba 2010

Two artists- Bulgarian and Iranian – ask Cubans to write stories about the streets where they live. After that they publish the book in Bulgaria.
The book becomes a passionate symbol for Cubans.
Why? Ulises, Gleybis and Marcel, 3 young Cubans who live in Havana in 2010, tell their stories.

written and directed by Diana Ivanova (Bulgaria)
co-director and camera by Babak Salari (Iran/Canada)
edited by Svetla Neykova(Bulgaria)
Jan 22@ 6PM

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