The Returnees: A Cuban photographer helps shape Havana’s multimedia landscape

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Luis Mario Gell has launched an art gallery, co-founded an online cultural magazine, and he’s been making music videos for Cuba’s top performers and travel videos for the Ministry of Tourism. Photo by: Francesco Meliciani.

In recent years, hundreds of young Cubans have returned from abroad to open businesses, building on skills and market knowledge they gained overseas. Many have entered tourism-related fields and launched restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and art studios. Some have set up shop in information technology, accounting, and other services. This is part 2 of 3 in our “The Returnees” series. 

Luis Mario Gell has so many projects going on that it’s hard to keep track. Since returning from Italy to Havana five years ago, the celebrated photographer launched an art gallery. He co-founded an online cultural magazine. And he’s been making music videos for Cuba’s top performers and travel videos for the Ministry of Tourism, some using drones and other technologies new to the island.

In early 2017, Gell took out a 10-year lease on most of an old glass factory owned by Cuba’s government, and he’s renovating it into a TV, film and production studio. This summer, he started producing a weekly TV show in the space, where he sometimes hosts dance presentations and jam sessions.

But that’s just a smidgeon of Gell’s wide-ranging projects.

A digital aficionado, he’s built a database of Cuban models categorized by weight, height, hair color, and other characteristics, so filmmakers from the island and abroad can choose models for shoots. He’s created a separate database of photos of Cuba, organized by city, decade, and other factors to help filmmakers recreate authentic Cuban scenes and identify locations. And he’s working on another for rentals by filmmakers, everything from vintage radios to specialized photo equipment.

Keen on education, Gell plans to offer training programs to recent graduates of Cuban art, design and film schools to help them experience how the international film industry really works, with high standards and tight deadlines. And he dreams of starting a private photography institute that would be tuition-free – like most Cuban education – and possibly funded by sales of stock images taken by the students.

Gell has so many ideas and such contagious energy behind his Estudio50 venture that an investor from Latin America has already offered him a significant sum. But he’s developing his vision locally, recently opting to take out a loan from a Cuban bank to finance the factory renovation.

“I’d like this to be a 100 percent Cuban project,” Gell said at his factory space. “I’d like to create a model that lets us operate with local funding, advertising and filming in the local market.”

None of the new ventures would be possible, Gell said, without overseas experience. He studied photography at a private institute in Italy and worked for top architectural firms and luxury brands such as Bulgari while traveling the world. His decade abroad even featured over a year in the United States. “But I never gave up my home in Cuba. I never felt far away,” said Gell, 40.

On a recent workday, Gell drove his family’s old, burgundy Lada through the metal gate of the factory and parked inside to talk with CubaTrade. He looked like a typical Italian urbanite, wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses, an orange Polo T-shirt, well-fitting jeans, and white leather sneakers, carrying his smart phone in a red case.

Gell took out a 10-year lease on most of an old glass factory owned by Cuba’s government, and he’s renovating it into a TV, film and production studio.

He’d been up late building a set for a shoot, yet that morning was already training a young graduate to be his assistant. During a fast-paced conversation in Spanish, he seemed comfortable, down-to-earth, and focused while sharing his experience as a returnee.

Gell said he learned photography during childhood from his father, who kept a dark room at home. Interested in architecture, he pursued civil engineering but left college for a job in tourism that offered higher pay than state salaries. He met an Italian woman, married her, and settled in Rome.

Although his career was thriving, Gell’s brother called and asked if he’d move back to Cuba to be with their mom. The brother, a pianist, was heading to Costa Rica to pursue a master’s degree. Already divorced, Luis Mario returned. He opened an art gallery in Vedado and later, online magazine “Vistar,” which helped showcase his photos in hopes of drawing better-paying gigs for commercial clients.

“When I got here in 2012, commercial photography hardly existed. But then the private sector took off, and I could explain the importance of a good photo, showing the impact with statistics,” said Gell. “Now, more people understand it costs money for good images for music videos or tourism campaigns.” To be sure, Gell misses some aspects of his life abroad, from 24/7 access to the internet, photo supplies such as museum quality paper, and Europe’s quicker pace of production. He often travels overseas, recently exhibiting his work in Turkey and visiting friends in Italy.

Yet he sees opportunity in Cuba to share the skills he learned abroad and to apply them in Cuba’s unique marketplace. Said Gell: “Optimal adaptation to new circumstances – that’s my motto for life.”

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