Sam Parkes Shows the Poetic Side to Cuba’s Everyday Scenes

All images and text by Sam Parkes. Used with permission.

My name is Sam Parkes and I would describe my photography as poetic storytelling. By that I do not mean fiction or in any way set up, I don’t add things in the edit or take away. I try to create an individual photograph that tells a coherent and compelling story. I travel, I take to the streets, to the forests, to the temple, to the market place and I walk and watch and wait. My photography covers a broad spectrum; it deals with the complexities of human life, our daily activities and cross cultural exploration. But I do not limit myself to being labeled a ‘human photographer’. I am just as likely to photograph landscape, wildlife, architecture, whatever I feel is worth recording. Neither do I exclusively work in black and white or color, but whatever best tells the story and creates a photograph you want to look at more than once.

I use no equipment other than a Canon 7d II with EF 24-70mm and FujiFilm Xt1 with 18-55mm. Two cameras with one lens for each, one camera at a time.

I think my work has a classic and timeless aesthetic, with a certain elliptical quality to it of which we see very little of these days. So much of what we see is made in a cheap and throw away style, either heavily processed or ill considered or slap bang crass and vulgar. I wanted to create something that lasts, that gives pleasure, and that assumes its audience is smarter than they think they are. It reveals without giving away its secret, its balanced both aesthetically and viscerally and leaves room for interpretation. It focuses on the human and essential factors which comprise of all good storytelling.

My project, Cuba And The World To Come, is unlike most of the visual stories you will see of Cuba these days. The images have a metaphorical, almost dream like quality to them. It stays clear of the cliches we see endlessly repeated of Cuba — old cars, cigars, colorful buildings, honeymooning beach goers sipping coconuts — which only serve to fulfill our romantic notions or confirm our prejudices. I endeavored to show the beauty and unique qualities of Cuba, but did not shy away from the gritty reality of everyday lives.

Why did you get into photography?

I wanted to travel and tell stories. Initially, I wanted to be a writer and came to photography late. I would travel and write about my experiences. Then I decided to take a very cheap and pretty awful camera on a trip to India and found that I really enjoyed taking photos. I found that the things I wanted to write about could also be expressed visually. I got good feedback from people, but felt I could do so much better if I applied myself whole-heartedly. It started from there.

What photographers are your biggest influences?

Henri Cartier Bresson, Bill Brandt, Sebastiao Salgado, Arnold Newman, Margaret Bourke-White, Alex Webb, Josef Koudelka, Harry Gruyaert, Eve Arnold, John Bulmer, Ferdinando Scianna, William Eggleston, W. Eugene Smith, Rene Burri, Ara Guler, Elliott Erwitt, Raghu Rai, Graciela Iturbide, Robert Doisneau, Fred Herzog, Jason Eskenazi, Walker Evans, Ragnar Axelsson (in no particular order and many many more!).

How long have you been shooting?

3.5 years.

Why is photography and shooting so important to you?

I find its a way of engaging with the world, a way of seeing intensely and a way of expression. It gives a questing purpose to my travels. More often than not it’s a way of telling people’s stories on behalf of those who can’t. I want to engage with people and get back to a purity in photography that focuses on story and content rather than equipment. I see too much of what I’d consider ‘screen saver’ images today — technically perfect but with no voice, no vision, no originality. Lacking an aesthetic standard, they reveal only that the photographer has a good camera and sound technical knowledge, nothing more.

Do you feel that you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why?

It’s hard to say. I document people, place, but ultimately all photography is subjective and conceited, and therefore it’s my creation, too. How people will engage with what I’m showing them is partly dependent on how I am choosing to document something. The lines are blurred.

What’s typically going through your mind when you create images? Tell us about your processes both mentally and mechanically?

I’m typically hyperalert, intensely focused on what is before me, anticipating, and concentrating on how best to shoot. I’m very instinctive, allowing the intelligence of my subconscious to often dictate the photograph, as it usually knows better. Often, I will look at an image later on, not knowing the reason I took it at the time and it becomes clear to me that there was detail that my conscious mind had not apprehended in the moment. An intelligence much greater than my rational mind had seen something. This is an important thing I discovered for myself. As best as possible I adjust the camera as I go to the right settings for the conditions I’m in so that I can be swift and
impulsive and act immediately.

Want to walk us through your processing techniques?

I use Adobe Lightroom. Occasionally, if I have not managed to capture an image as ideally as I’d have liked I will rescue it by exposing more
light or by making it darker or whatever the image requires. I don’t like to over touch images; if the drama is not there when the image was
taken then I don’t consider it a successful photograph and don’t want to have to find it in the editing suite. I never crop images, I pride myself on the accuracy of my shooting.

Tell us about the project that you’re pitching, or your portfolio.

My portfolio is diverse in people and place. It covers many countries and poses questions about place, human culture, and our relationship to
our environment.  I hope it bridges cross cultural understanding. The specific project I’m sharing is entitled Cuba And The World To Come. It focuses on the youth of Cuba and their visions for the future of their country at a time of change. The nature of a photograph is limitation. I wanted to capture images that push those limits, to fill the space of a frame both physically and metaphorically by capturing an intensity, a longing, a desire for new possibilities, the forging of a world to come.

What made you want to get into your genre?

I see story telling, whether it visual or written or oral, as an inbuilt and essential part of human nature. We need stories almost as much as we
need food and shelter. We are meaning seeking creatures and we very quickly fall into despair without it. Stories are a way of creating meaning through the passing on of knowledge, as an entertainment and as an account of history. Documenting through photography, captured appropriately, is a way of story telling.

Tell us a bit about the gear that you use and how you feel it helps you achieve your creative vision.

More often than not I don’t want to be seen, I want my images to be taken without having been acknowledged, that way I feel a greater, more
truthful portrait can be told. When I’m wandering the streets trying to be invisible, I mostly use my Fujifilm xT1. Its relatively small compared to a DSLR and allows me to be more candid. When I know I’ll be heading to an area of greater physical scope, like a forest or a coast or climbing a mountain, I use my Canon 7d II. It has greater low light capabilities, its more robust, and the image quality is a little sharper. In this way I can capture what is ephemeral and what is unchanging — both cameras help me achieve this.

What motivates you to shoot?

Creating a body of work that stands the test of time and that not only documents but has something to say about the life that we as humans
experience in all its marvels, cruelties, and complexities.

Visit Sam Parkes’ website and follow him on Instagram to see more of his poetic photography.