in frame documentary photography cuba youth champu delbrouck cuban havana contemporary photographer photobook book inframe kalel koven portrait life

Interview Vincent Delbrouck

*For a better visual experience click on each photos to see them in their original format*

Let’s start at the very beginning how this project was born? 
I have been working again in Havana since 2014 after a pause of 9 years. I was trying to find peace and colors in Cuba, after the one year family experience in Nepal with Buddhism, trekking in the Annapurna region, shiatsu massage, etc. I wanted to meet new people in the island and finally escape a bit from the city center of Havana. So, I spent time in the capital but also in Guanabo, near the sea and also in Baracoa, Vinales, Playa Larga, and Holguin. I built little by little a miscellaneous collection of pictures (portraits, still lifes,…) and objects (rubbish found on the ground) and wrote a lot of fiction there. Some Cuban friends hurt me and I went back home very tired and lost at the end of 2016.

I made a kind of burnout and decided I could maybe continue this project in a different way. All was improvisation, in a search for something quite obscure. I went back to Havana and I discovered this south suburbs of Havana around Lawton and La Vibora, and I felt in love with the neighborhood. It is vibrant and quiet at the same time, there is vegetation, parks. I love it. In my mind, unconsciously I was looking for those groups of teenagers in Havana, the youth of today, having the age of my son. It was related with literature, desires, a new energy in the city and inside me.

In the photos you can see or it’s an interpretation of mine as if you had fallen in love with their youth, their beauty and the authentic moments without any false pretences that come with it. Can you tell me what you felt during those moments with them?
You are right, it is like falling in love, being nervous, excited, out of time, but also sometimes lonely (the artist… photographer, writer is always observing and a bit outside of everything when he is deeply connected, this is a strange position) or just focused, or expecting more, or laughing so much like in the bus going to the beach with their music yelling, and we are drunk and this is just fine. Up and down.


« When I discovered the images in Belgium after my return… I felt in love with them. »


I read that you met them a little bit by chance, can you tell us more about the first contact and how you managed to turn this first unexpected contact into a longer relationship?
I met the group in the park El Chivo in La Vibora on a Monday afternoon, by chance, they were all there, drinking and smoking and chatting and kissing, all very beautiful and freaky. All super kind. The girls called me and I made some portraits but directly the first contact opened a space of not calculated friendship. They were not expecting anything from me as a foreigner with money. It was as if I was already part of the group even if I was older. It was amazing. They were meeting there everyday after school. So, I started to go to the park everyday. When I discovered the images in Belgium after my return (I work with film) I felt in love with them. I decided I should go back to Havana very soon and shoot more images and maybe make a film. In 2018, I went to Cuba three times. They became my Cuban family. 

« Art is the ruler. And yes I am married with Cuba. »

It seems to me that your relationship with Cuba is special, before you met them did you have a particular project or were you wandering to feel the vibrations of life? Did you live there at that time? I ask this question to understand the state that prepares you for the encounter. I think that the encounter, the openness that it requires to welcome the unexpected is the result of a mental path to put oneself in the state of seeing, hearing, feeling. If you can tell me more about your state before this meeting, what you wanted or what you gave up to be in a particular reception?
I love very much this question. You’ve answered already yourself to a part of it, I guess. It was like a strong need of happiness, a state of depression that had to be cured absolutely inside me and the teenagers in Havana were the medicine, I suppose. I felt in love, I broke my personal life to find something else. Art is my life. Love feeds it. I was in crisis and the encounter gave me birth again. With also a lot of suffering in 2019. I broke up with my wife and essentially with myself. It was also terrible but I found a new way of life, more responsibility, I decided I had the right to behave like a teenager and that art would be my eternal path. Art is the ruler. And yes I am married with Cuba. And yes certainly « the openness that it requires to welcome the unexpected is the result of a mental path to put oneself in the state of seeing, hearing, feeling. » This could be the definition of photography for me. This is beauty, absolute and insecure beauty. It is a strange journey, nothing exotic at all, more like high concentration, relationship and loneliness. All together at the same time. A flow. Cuba helps me to find or get that, I think.

« Obsession is not something you think about, it is something you make love with. »

Did you already have a specific idea of what you wanted at that moment ?
I have always a desire and obsession, never specific or preconceived ideas about what I want. It would be insane for me. And that leads you to bad photography, bad documentary photography I think, with a stupid idea of a subject, etc. I feel attracted by a person, a gesture, sometimes it is more about a moment, a place, a certain situation. But it is all about love and desire that is like a necessity, not an idea. I hate ideas and subject in photography. All those concepts you are supposed to learn to be good. This is nonsense. Or anything you could stick from your mind on the reality is a waste of time. Obsession is not something you think about, it is something you make love with. It is more powerful because you really need to be honest and connect with the others. Even if it is for one minute. You cannot lie. You are naked.


You made these photos with which camera and which lens? Did you waited at the end to develop everything or you made regularly?
I use a small point and shoot Rollei 35AFM and a Fuji 645. The films are developed in Brussels. I have to wait to see them. It is the usual process when you travel for a month. You just wait. When I was living in Nepal I developed the films in Kathmandu and bought more films there. It was different. I wait, not a long time but I wait so I can also forget a little bit about the moment and rediscover with so much pleasure all I shot there. I never adapt. I cannot plan and build like this. I don’t like to analyse. I think already too much in my brain, too rapidly and in every direction, connecting all the time everything, so it is better to shoot and not be anxious about what is shot. Or about this or that, or about what should be. Let it sleep and reborn when it is time for that. It is a process of accumulation. A forest. 

Tell me about your relationship with Cuba?
It is a loving affair, sometimes it is insane and creating lot of anxiety. Cuba contains a body that is mine, organic, crazy, vibrant and colorful. It is my heart beating. Almost all my art is connected with the place, the energy of that country, its population. I learned to speak Spanish over the years, in the streets, in the Cuban novels. I have thought several times to settle down in Havana or in anther place but finally the country is so sick and destroyed by the regime that I have to cancel the idea. It is not a good idea to live in Cuba right now. It is a pity. But it is like that. Cuba is dying in a dictatorship. Many years of starvation. I feel very sorry and sad about that. But Cuba can rebuilt itself. We just have to wait.

During the evolution of this project, what decisions or approaches did you adapt? Can you tell me if there were moments like that where you felt that you had to go in a certain direction or not?
Yes there were moments like that where I tried to pretend I could go to that or that direction but I din’t know what it was. And what happened was different. It is never what you expected with life. You can arrive in Havana in September and nobody is at the park. You are disillusioned and suddenly you find one of them, and two, and the group is in another energy, somewhere else. But finally it moves back to the park. Then real love is coming and you did not expected it. Not really. And it is creating other interference. But new faces are showing. New portraits. Excellent. Or you become good friend with that girl and you organize a photo shooting just with her and the moment is just wonderful. Sharing is creating direction. Different layers emerge, different components. Impossible to predict all this. Maybe something is missing but I accept it. I was not searching for a specific direction, I was just « writing » and all came like the ocean. With large waves.


Can you tell me about your influences in photography?
I had a period of documentary photography: Eugene Richards, Magnum photographers. Then also « fashion » photographers as Jurgen Teller. I have always felt inspired by Wolfgang Tillmans. This « constellation » approach is mine. The color photographers of the Seventies in USA as Stephen Shore or William Eggleston, I am big fan. Also Malick Sidibe, Ed Templeton, Ari Marcopoulos,… Nowadays it is also more about painting. Painters like Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas, Luc Tuymans, Egon Schiele,… Cuban painters. This summer I have to say that I am very in love with the images of Daido Moriyama.

Your top 5 photobooks?
GO-SEES by Jurgen Teller
MANUAL by Wolfgang Tillmans
IMPERIAL COURTS 1993-2015 by Dana Lixenberg

Interview by Kalel Koven

Photographer’s Links: WebsiteInstagram – Facebook

Photo Book CHAMPÚ here