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THE TALKING EYE: Adria Ellis – Documenting Street Culture in Havana, Cuba – Interview by Bob Weil

Every other month, Bob profiles an exceptional mobile photographer currently producing notable work across a variety of subjects and employing a broad range of techniques. Some will be well known within the mobile photography world (exhibiting and selling their work), and others are gifted aficionados of the craft.

Adria was one of the iPhone photographers Nicki Fitz-Gerald and I profiled in our 2013 how-to book, The Art of iPhone Photography for Rocky Nook Photography Books. She has been a pioneer in using the iPhone to capture the world around her for more than a decade, but like many of us, she has moved away from calling out her camera of choice, or entering only mobile phone camera contests. She calls herself a documentarian of street life rather than a street photographer, for reasons that will come apparent during the interview. Readers may know that Habana, and Cuba as a whole, are undergoing a moment as the city and country re-enter the world stage as a destination and the home of real people trying to live their lives in peace and with dignity. To help others experience an emerging Cuba, she is working on a ten-year project to document her captures, as well as hosting photography workshops to Habana.

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BW: Please share your educational and professional background.

AE: I was born in Fort Collins, Colorado, and currently, I live in Brooklyn, New York. In 1996, I graduated from Brooks Institute of Photography with a degree in Photography. Presently, I am leading small Cultural Photography Tours in Havana, Cuba. The focus of these tours is to master iPhone photography while slowly exploring Havana. I am now five years into a ten-year documentary project in Havana, Cuba. Over the coming eight months, I will be hosting three trips: October 30th – November 5th, 2023, January 25th – February 1st, 2024, and March 8th – 14th, 2024.

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What drew you to photography?

I started taking photographs at a young age. I come from three generations of remarkable female artists; they all paint and draw, but I have zero talent in that department. My drawings never resembled what I was looking at. However, I loved that I could take photographs, and they represented what I was seeing with a high level of likeness. Before I even turned 10, I was already taking Polaroid portraits of my friends, and during family vacations, I took way too many photographs. Being a photographer has always been my true passion.

Untitled – one of a group of ten images that was recognised with a 2023 Critic’s Choice award

What prompted you to use the iPhone as your primary camera for your winning series of images for submission to Lens Culture?

My iPhone is always my primary camera, there was no decision to make. I started shooting with my iPhone as early as 2011. I realized that the more gear I had and the heavier it became, the less likely I was to carry it around. However, when the first iPhone came out, I found myself taking pictures with the same excitement as the ten-year-old me—it was pure fun! I entered the Lens Culture Critics Choice Awards, without even mentioning my gear because, to me, it’s just a camera. It’s small, light, fast, and I always have it with me.

Untitled – one of a group of ten images that was recognised with a 2023 Critic’s Choice award

What inspired you to pursue this particular series?

In 2016, I visited Havana, Cuba, for the first time, and it left a profound impact on me. I couldn’t resist returning, and within the first year, I went back two more times—I quickly knew that I was in love with this place. The Cuban people, their culture, and the sheer beauty of the city captured my heart. Havana felt like a time capsule, preserving its uniqueness in so many different ways. By the end of my second trip, I had made a commitment to document Havana for ten years. Unfortunately, I couldn’t spend time in Cuba during 2021 or 2022, but I have picked up where I left off. This marks my sixth year, with four more to go on this journey. It feels vital for the world to see Cuba and gain a deeper understanding of what life in Havana is truly like.

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What other camera(s) and accessories do you typically use – if any?

Until the last 3 months, I strictly shot with whatever iPhone was the newest generation. However, a few months ago, I decided to try something different and purchased a FujiFilm 6X4.5 medium format film camera. I’ve shot 5 rolls so far, but I must admit, it feels a bit bulky and slower compared to the convenience of my iPhone. Nevertheless, I wanted to give it a chance and explore this medium. Since the film cost $100 and another $100 for developing five rolls I don’t feel so bad keeping my iPhone updated after that.

Are there any specific design periods or artists who have an influence on your overall body of work?

Not particularly.

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More recently, portraits and urban cityscapes seem to represent much of your work. What has been the attraction for you in these subjects?

In November of 2022, I made a significant move to Brooklyn, marking the beginning of a new chapter in my life. Photography has always been my passion, and I carry my camera with me everywhere I go. City life keeps me on my toes and truly inspires me to shoot every day. I attend parades and festivals, immersing myself in street photography and capturing the vibrancy of people, food, and places. It’s been an exciting year for me, and by the end of July, I’ll be embarking on my fourth trip to Havana this year. The truth is, photography fuels me, and I absolutely love being a photographer. My camera will always be an extension of myself, documenting my surroundings and daily life. There’s something magical about making Havana part of my daily life, and it truly brings me joy to capture and share its beauty through my lens.

Untitled – one of a group of ten images that was recognised with a 2023 Critic’s Choice award

How would you describe your work in terms of style and/or approach?

I refer to myself as a street photographer, but in truth, my style deviates somewhat from the traditional definition. I see myself more as a documentarian, capturing moments with a distinct focus on the subject. My images often possess a sense of balance, and I prefer a deliberate, straight composition. I am aware of both the strengths and weaknesses of my camera, and my style is shaped by its capabilities, leveraging its strengths to tell stories through my photography.

Untitled – one of a group of ten images that was recognised with a 2023 Critic’s Choice award

How has your work evolved over time? About ten years ago, I seem to recall that you did a fair amount of rural landscape work.

Ten years ago, I was living in both Colorado and Kauai, where I was surrounded by the breathtaking beauty. Nature became my primary subject, and I spent a significant amount of time photographing the mountains, the beaches, surfers, the weather, my everyday life. At that time, the concept of editing images right in the palm of my hand using mobile apps was both exciting and new, and I experimented with various apps to achieve a painterly look in my photos.

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Simultaneously, as my life evolved over the years, I found myself traveling extensively, which led me to reconsider my gear choices. The weight of heavy camera equipment became impractical for my nomadic lifestyle, and I embraced the versatility of my iPhone for street photography and portraiture. The iPhone reignited my passion for capturing candid moments and engaging with people on the streets.

During my recent move, I stumbled upon old slides from my past adventures, including portraits taken during my time in Africa back in 1997. Despite the passage of time, I still cherish those portraits, and they serve as a reminder of my enduring love for photography throughout the years. It’s clear that photography has been an integral part of my life for a long time, and I look forward to many more years of capturing moments and telling stories through my lens.

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What would you say that you are trying to communicate with your work?

In my daily life, I find myself photographing everything that catches my eye. I have a genuine appreciation for the beauty in the simplest of things, and I’m constantly attuned to the sense of balance and beauty that surrounds me. My passion lies in sharing what I see through my photography and conveying the emotions it evokes within me. However, my photography takes on a different dimension when I’m in Cuba. There, my focus shifts towards storytelling—painting a vivid picture of life in Havana while also documenting what I believe will be a remarkable and transformative decade for the country. Cuba’s unique culture and heartfelt people offer a wealth of stories waiting to be told, and I embrace the opportunity to share the essence of this captivating place and its people. It’s an exciting and fulfilling journey as both a photographer and a storyteller.

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Tell us a typical day of photography. How do you plan, where do you go, what do you look for, etc.?

There are two contrasting sides to my photography approach. On one hand, I deliberately set myself up in interesting locations, attend events, and venture out when the lighting conditions seem favorable. However, what’s most crucial for me is simply to GET OUT and be present. I find that the key to success in my photography is taking action and immersing myself in the surroundings. In Cuba, my approach is slightly different. While I plan nothing specific, I make sure to be out and about, exploring the city. It’s not uncommon for me to walk up to 10 miles a day, seeking moments that captivate my attention. The beauty of photographing Havana lies in its ever-present allure. It doesn’t matter when or where I find myself—there’s always something compelling and beautiful to photograph. Walking home from breakfast can lead to a stunning photograph, as demonstrated by the image that was acknowledged by Lens Culture.

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What kinds of creative patterns, routines, or rituals do you have to increase your chances of success when you’re shooting?

The key to successful photography is simple: Just go shoot!. Having my camera with me at all times allows me to capture anything and everything that inspires me. Embracing repetition can be incredibly beneficial. It allows you to develop a deeper understanding of your subjects and surroundings. When I am in Havana, I shoot the fishermen on the Malecon almost every day. Almost 7 years and thousands of photographs later, I’ve gained valuable insights into the light, the angles, and habits of the fishermen. This knowledge enables me to anticipate the shot and capture great photographs. I believe my dedication over the years has undoubtedly contributed to the quality of my imagery. Ultimately, being passionate, consistent, and willing to learn has allowed me to continually grow and improve as a photographer.

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Are any of your photographs posed, or are they all spontaneous captures?

They are all spontaneous moments. Sometimes I wait for the smile, and I always try to wait for the peace sign to go down. 😉

Do you do multiple edited versions of the same image? How do you know when a work is finished?

In today’s social media landscape, where so much work is showcased on platforms like Instagram or Facebook, I often find myself adding a bit more punch to my edits. I frequently experiment with both square and rectangular crops to suit the platform’s requirements. However, when I print or use the image in a larger context, I tend to favour a more subtle and softer edit, offering a different perspective depending on the medium.

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Do any of your images represent a composite of shots taken at different locations or times?

They do not.

What post-processing apps do you use in your work? If you do use apps, describe your editing process, in general terms?

Much of my editing is done on the fly, using my phone. As I often travel alone, I enjoy time spent in coffee shops or back at my room, where I go through images, delete unwanted ones, and do quick edits. Snapseed has become my go-to editing tool these days. Occasionally, I miss the nostalgic feel of film, so I aim for edits that mimic some of my old favorite films, I often add grain to enhance that effect. However, I’ve come to realize that when I want to print or submit my imagery, I need to transfer the editing process to a larger screen for precise fine-tuning. Working on a bigger display allows me to ensure that my images are at their best before sharing or printing them. The iPad will usually suffice, if I need to change the format I move to my laptop.

In what other ways, besides photography, do you express your creativity?

Real estate. I know that’s kind of out of left field. I just finished my 5th large renovation.

Untitled – one of a group of ten images that was recognised with a 2023 Critic’s Choice award

Where has your work been exhibited or published? What are the most notable photography awards you have won?

In 2015, I had the honor of exhibiting my work at Evoke Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Three years later, I was part of an exhibit at Fabrica Des Arte in Havana, Cuba—a truly unforgettable experience. I hope to be able to showcase my work there again in 2024. Lens Culture featured my Havana work, and for the first time, I didn’t mention the camera I used. It made me realize that unless I’m specifically teaching iPhoneography, the camera I use doesn’t make much difference. It’s the story and the art behind the images that truly matter.

What advice would you have for someone aspiring to do the type of photography that you do?

That’s easy! Join me in Cuba, it’s an incredible opportunity to learn and to catapult your skills! The iPhone is a powerful tool for photography, offering endless opportunities for practice, exploration, and experimentation. Cuba is such a fascinating place to visit and a provides a perfect classroom! The key is to be patient and dedicated, not being afraid to shoot everything that catches your eye. Through continuous practice, you’ll find your comfort level increasing, and using the iPhone will become second nature to you.

Untitled – one of a group of ten images that was recognised with a 2023 Critic’s Choice award

Have you attempted to sell your work? If you have, how successful have you been, and what recommendations do you have for those who wish to do so as well?

In 2015, when I was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I decided to focus on selling my photography. However, I quickly realized that this side of my creative journey wasn’t very successful or enjoyable. While selling photography may not be my forte, I’m excited to continue exploring my creative journey and embracing the aspects that bring me the most excitement and fulfilment. Sharing the beauty of Cuba and connecting with fellow travellers who share my passion is where I find my true calling as an artist. Simply put, I would rather be teaching on the streets of Havana than focusing on selling art in a gallery.

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What comes next in your creative journey? Any upcoming plans in choice of approach, subject, etc. that you care to share? Are there plans for a book-length or year-long project?

Wow, I have so much going on, and it’s incredibly inspiring! Since March, I’ve been hosting private trips to Havana, focusing on Slow Photography, and immersing my guests in Cuban history and culture. I’m eagerly looking forward to the first of my three Havana Now trips, scheduled for October 30th – November 5th, where I’ll continue where I left off in 2020. Additional trips are scheduled for January 25th-February 1st, 2024, and March 8th-14th, 2024. The excitement is contagious, and everyone is eagerly awaiting the first advanced/reunion trip by the end of 2024. Back in 2016, I made a commitment to document Havana for 10 years, and I’m now proud to say that I have five years already under my belt. Currently, I’m diligently working on my first book, with the goal of publishing two—one at the 5-year mark and the second when I complete the 10-year project. Havana holds a special place in my heart, and I’m thrilled to be heading there next week, beginning the process of organizing a show at Fabrica Des Arte for the end of 2024. The passion I have for Havana is evident, and my unwavering commitment to this project drives me forward. My journey as a photographer is filled with exciting ventures and meaningful projects, and I can’t wait to share the work I produce in the years to come!

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ADRIA ELLIS

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LENS CULTURE

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Bob Weil is a former marketing exec and practicing mixed media digital pictorialist living in Omaha, Nebraska. He has won numerous awards for his work and has exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Canada, Italy and Portugal. He is a published author and teacher on digital art subjects with 2,400 students in 52 countries. Bob co-authored The Art of iPhone Photography with Nicki Fitz-Gerald for Rocky Nook Photography Books.

Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>


Comments (2):

  1. Nazmul Bashar

    September 29, 2023 at 07:07

    You have been using iPhone as one of your photography tools. You use it remarkably well. It is indeed creative. My question to you: when you are talking about iPhone did you mean to say ‘all the smartphone’ cameras? For example, a Samsung or Android device camera would be equally capable of making good artistic photographs. Or maybe the Android devices fall short of expectations.

    Reply
    • Alexander

      November 24, 2023 at 17:58

      Android devices are good enough. Photographer is the main “tool” 😉

      Reply

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