Intimate portraits of Cuba's most flamboyant carnival performers

Published 29th December 2016
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Intimate portraits of Cuba's most flamboyant carnival performers
Written by Allyssia Alleyne, CNN
When London-based fashion photographer Salvatore di Gregorio was invited by Cuba's minister of culture to shoot a photo essay in December 2015, he was intent on capturing the country's celebrated comparsas: the flamboyantly dressed performers who have become the face of carnival throughout the Caribbean and South America.
But rather than replicate the ubiquitous images of smiling performers dancing their way down sun-soaked streets, he chose to show an alternative view, photographing them in a more subdued light.
Foregoing the spectacle of carnival, he shot his subjects wearing full regalia -- replete with colorful sequins, feathers and Cuban flags -- in simple locations, creating a striking contrast between the festivity of their dress and the simplicity of their locales.
A year later, these photos are on view at the Fototeca de Cuba in Havana.
"Carnival is a great example of the rich mixture of cultures that is Cuba," he said. "The comparsas I photographed are members of the traditional carnival groups who are dedicated to keep the Cuban carnival tradition alive. I wanted to contribute to this aim."
Di Gregorio spoke to CNN about the time he spent with Cuba's most flamboyant entertainers.
CNN: What drew you to the dancers as a subject?
Salvatore di Gregorio: My approach as a photographer is to fuse fashion and documentary style. I was fascinated by the props and costumes of the comparsas. I also wanted to tell a different and more nuanced story than the usual images of Caribbean carnival.
I wanted to get as close to the subjects as possible. I wanted to create intimate portraits, capturing the comparsas in the splendor of their costumes against beautiful, everyday backdrops of Cuba.
How did you find your models?
I was introduced to the local organizations that manage the events agenda of the comparsas. Each Cuban province has its own. They arranged for me to meet the participants and helped organizing the photo shoots. The sessions were planned, but felt very spontaneous because the context was real.
Were the comparsas as flamboyant and charismatic as their costumes?
They were incredibly charismatic. The hardest part of the shoot was to direct them because they are just not used to being in front of a camera, however they were very easy to work with. Although of the main focus of this project was to draw attention to those magnificent dresses, I wanted to capture the personality and charm of those wearing them.
Do you have a favorite photo from the series?
One of my favorite photos is "Ireme" (a masked dancer who is part of the Abakuá men's society.) The colors of the costume against the background create an incredibly powerful image that shows a Cuba one wouldn't normally see.
What did you learn while photographing this series?
I am so passionate about this project. It allowed me to create an intimate relationship with a country that fascinates me for its cultural diversity and rich historical background.
The Afro-Cuban culture is fascinating. Exploring and documenting the Yoruba, the religion that is part of this community's culture, with its multitude of rituals and stories, could be the next project.
Las Comparsas de Cuba is on view at the Fototeca de Cuba in Havana until Jan. 4, 2017.