Art, Music, Politics: Cuba, Cantinflas & Hustlin' to Make It as a Photographer

10/26/2011 07:59 am ET | Updated Dec 26, 2011

Voto Latino's AMP (Art Music Politics) column delves deeper into the reasons why people who are passionate about politics create art and make music. Through weekly video interviews, Q&A's and first-person accounts, AMP will be your source for artists and musicians dedicated to a cause.

By Kamren Curiel

Juan Luis Garcia is attracted to complex countries like Cuba and the eccentricity of entertainers. It's no wonder his lens has captured both in his seven years of shooting professionally. I caught up with the LA-based photographer, who shot Rosario Dawson, Common and Wilmer Valderrama for Voto Latino's Be Counted andUnited We Win campaigns and recently released his first book Cuba and Cubans, to talk about the power his medium has to change perception and what it takes to make it as a photographer.

Where were you born?
I was born in Torrance and raised in Guadalajara and Long Beach.

What's your favorite photo you've ever shot?
A portrait of my abuelita in her ranch in Zacatecas (above). I accompanied her on a trip to visit her house out there, and we were just walking around the ranch when everything seemed to connect. Luckily, I was looking through the camera and snapped this photo.

If you could shoot anyone, who would it be? My dream isn't to photograph anyone in particular, although Lucille Ball and Cantinflas have had a huge effect on my way of thinking. They taught me that if you can make someone laugh, you become equal. Another person is George Carlin. I cried when he died. I'm attracted to entertainers, so I'd love to photograph them all.

You just recently traveled to Cuba for the second time. How was this last trip different from your first? The first trip to Cuba, when these photos were made, I was on assignment for two weeks as a still photographer for a documentary and shot these portraits on any second of spare time I had. The second trip, I was commissioned to shoot a fashion catalog. Both times we went with press passes and visas so we were there "legally." The main difference from my first trip was that we stayed in casa particulares, not hotels. Eating and interacting with people in their homes is so much more intimate. I learned what it's like to live in Cuba.

What did you observe about the younger Cuban generation?
They seem to want what they don't have. They're less connected to the revolution than the older generation and are outgrowing the rules; like a teenager rebels against their parents.

What's the biggest takeaway from your photos of Cuba? We are all human and connected directly and indirectly. Photography has the power to reveal those connections and form a stronger bond with people who've never met. With my Cuban portraits, I wanted to show my family the similarities between the Cuban way of life and our Mexican heritage. They were so afraid of the "Cuban communist mystery" that they forgot they're just regular people like us living their lives.

What's the hardest thing about being a photographer? Removing the ego from the camera and the person behind it and making the subject the most important thing. It's hard because you want to make a name for yourself, but ultimately the subject is the most important thing. It's difficult in the beginning.

What does it take to make a living as a photographer these days? Photography is probably one of the most difficult vocations today. Every one's a photographer, literally and figuratively. Everybody has a camera in their pocket and on their phone. Trying to find clients who understand that photography is a profession can be difficult.

Does it help to major in photography in college? More important than any degree or class is to internship with a photographer whose work you admire. If you don't know what aperture, shutter speed and focal length are, you should definitely take a starter course.

What advice can you give to young people who want to be a photographer when they grow up? Your portfolio is a reflection of your passion. If you love animals, don't shoot a wedding and expect to get hired to shoot an ad for the zoo. Your potential clients need to see your vision, and if it contains photos you don't have a passion for, it will show. Photography is a beautiful form of expression. Celebrate that.

What are three tips you can share on being a dope photographer?

1. Learn that cameras are simply tools to execute your ideas.
2. Don't get fixated on megapixels, lenses, iPads or expensive lighting.
3. Use whatever tools you have to create and wage beauty!

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