This interview was made by Uprising during the Phot’Aix photography festival which is currently taking place in the city of Aix-en-Provence, in France, until November 18th 2012.

The selection of the artworks you present at Phot’Aix mainly includes photographs in color, however you worked a long time in black and white.

I have worked for a very long time in black and white. Black and white was my vocabulary. Imagine that you have a thousand words to speak and suddenly you discover a box that you can keep by your side and which contains a thousand words more. Color has more words than black and white. It is richer. At one time, black and white helped me to say what I wanted. I could have kept on working in black and white but since I found a better tool, which is color, why would I limit my discourse because of a technical problem? Photography is a medium that I use well, changing medium is like adopting a new language. If you want to express yourself, do it in your own tongue.

René Peña, de la série La Habana 1957 © Phot'Aix

René Peña, de la série La Habana 1957 © Phot’Aix

There is a trend or factions that speak of photography in black and white as purely artistic. It is a lie. I know a lot of photographers who work in black and white and that does not stop their pictures from being utter shit. In color, in black and white, the photographic film, the computer, Photoshop, your school, your education, your political opinions, your religion do not make you a good artist or photograph. What does this have to do with the picture being in color or black and white?  Nothing. I may have taken one particular photo in black and white because I imagined it in that color, with this lack of color, not in black and white. I stripped the color from the photograph, erased it. I sometimes saturate photographs: this one for example, I saturated it, I put color where I decided. The color is mine, the color does not give me orders, I am the one controlling color. I put it or I take it off.

This is also what you do in the contrasts of your photographs.

Contrast is the way I see things. It has nothing to do with theory. I am like this, I perceive as such.

The aesthetics of my photographs are purely formal. It is the way I work and transcribe my thoughts. It is as if you asked somebody in which color he is going to paint his house. He paints it in blue because he likes blue and that is it.

In my photographs, the background is neutral, rather dark, so that the person who is looking is not distracted by anything. I photograph from a close angle because it is what I like. But I also struggle against this question of style, it is tedious to me.

René Peña, de la série La Habana 1957 © Uprising Art

René Peña, de la série La Habana 1957 © Uprising Art

Your photographs are the result of a long work…

Yes, I rework a lot on my pictures. It is something that has evolved progressively. Ten years ago, to me, a good photograph was the photograph that you took instantly. It had to be good on the moment or never. But now photography is a primary material on which I keep working until I get the just representation of my thought.

How did this change happen?

Slowly, softly. Let’s see, art serves to reproduce thoughts, not reality. I do not want the object in front of me to be faithful to reality. To be exactly reproduced. What interests me is that my thought is faithful. I mean that photography should represent my ideas and not the reality that is in front of me.

The painter paints his thought and so does the photographer-well, some photographers…Others do not. Others care about sunset or the pure green of the grass.

When I think about freshness, I reproduce it as I want. I might use fresh grass, very green, with dew on it, I might use a wet stain on the wall of an old house, or use a Black man washing his hair…

René Peña, Untitled © Uprising Art

René Peña, Untitled © Uprising Art

Of what kind of ideas is the photography of the teapot representative?

It deals with tea, above all with drinking tea, which is not the kind of drink to which the Cubans are accustomed. The Cuban does not drink tea, he drinks coffee. The Cuban does not drink wine, the Cuban drinks rum. But when some people want to change social status and want to replace their customs of origins by “cooler” or more “chic” customs, these people are brought to do things like this.

René Peña, Untitled © Uprising Art

René Peña, Untitled © Uprising Art

This picture represents an individual who owns a teapot but does not know even how to use it, so what he does is sucking it.

You analyze the relations to customs, the society changes in men. How did you discourse evolve throughout time?

It got clean; it changed because nobody can have a certain criteria for good. We are in constant evolution and we must change. We have to regenerate otherwise we stagnate. As far as I am concerned, this transition has no defined end.

René Peña, Untitled © Uprising Art

René Peña, Untitled © Uprising Art

For example, the issue of being black no longer interests me. This discourse on Blackness/negritude and racial equality do not interest me anymore. I came to a point, not in my pictures but in my thought where I know that the Black men are part of a minority.

I have a role and I know who I am. Nobody can replace me and I do not ask anybody to give me anything. What I want, I take it. I take what is mine. I should not make a demonstration to ask anybody for equality. If I want something I take it, if you do not want to give it to me, I take it because it is mine.

What draws more your attention?

Now I am more focused on society and I like it. This image was built from a movie called Kandahar, on the Middle-Eastern women who wear a veil and are discriminated against. I solve this tension this way but I do not document things. I speculate from an idea. I do not represent pure ideas in my photographs.

René Peña, Untitled © Uprising Art

René Peña, Untitled © Uprising Art

Have you ever used models?

I tried but that was in vain. I cannot explain to people what I want. In my photographs, there is no drama, no role-playing, you can seek them but will not find them. People place themselves a certain way : they adopt postures. In my photographs, there are attitudes but not dramatic ones. It is difficult for me to explain this to a model. I have a bit more freedom on my own, it is calmer. Even in the picture of an ear or a piece of skin of a model, you can see and feel that the model is posing, it is unbelievable. You do not consider it as such but you perceive it unconsciously.

Photography is a question of chemistry.

My photographs are clean, it means that they do not have a nationality, they are not Cuban. You know it because you are here and know me but if somebody sees these photographs in a magazine, he will only think that it is a Black man taking a picture of himself and that is all.

Discover the artist’s presentation on our portal.


By Clelia Coussonnet

October 2012

Headline picture’s credits : : René Peña when we met in Aix © Uprising Art