Patria o Muerte : text by Dan Faichney

(Written in 2011)

Ross Fraser McLean is a Scottish photographer, born and bred in the city of Dundee, an artist who has successfully established himself, without the need to attend the local art college. He currently works and teaches in photography, both digital and analogue, with equal enthusiasm for modern technology and cameras older than himself. During his career, he has taken up residency in a number of other locations, both across Scotland and including the hotter climate of Barcelona. However it is to the familiar, nurturing environment of Scotland that McLean has returned, and has found that his East coast base allows him to travel somewhat obsessively, documenting his often dramatic experiences along the way.  

McLean turned 22 on a train ride into Mongolia, having already taken in Russia and Siberia, then after a stint in the Gobi desert went on to travel overland throughout China and Japan. In 2005 he found himself in war-torn Beirut, Lebanon, just 48 hours after a political bombing killed then Prime Minister Rafic Hariri during a public motorcade. Since then McLean has wandered the lonesome streets of Hollywood, taken on projects in Istanbul, Paris, Budapest and Berlin. Currently he claims to be happy to be freshly back on Scottish soil after a month in Northern India living with a community of snake charmers of the Sapera caste, having spent part of that time detained somewhat against his will.  

Patria o Muerte is an exhibition of images from McLean’s travels in Cuba, the result of a month long journey through the country on the 50th anniversary of the culmination of the Cuban Revolution. McLean states that he, like the revolutionaries of half a century before, was inspired by 19th Century Cuban freedom-fighter Jose Marti. Whilst the Cuba of the revolution, and indeed of the present day, has been photographed in iconic fashion before, McLean's imagery explores the tropical paradise of the ex-Soviet Bloc and crumbling colonial streets of the old Spanish empire with a particularly personal approach. 

'Patria o Muerte' is also a loaded phrase. Literally translated, it means ‘Motherland or Death’. This patriotic slogan relates to the struggles of Cuban revolutionaries at each stage of its violent political development, and its stirring rhetoric again recalls the work of Jose Marti. Marti’s idealistic life was largely spent fighting for independence from Spain for his country, but it is perhaps most of all the tragic heroism of his death which captured Mclean’s imagination. At the Battle of Dos Rios in 1895, facing the Spanish army, Marti turned to the lone young courier by his side, cried “¡Joven, a la carga!” (“Young man, let's charge!”) and went to his death.  

This interpretation is not the sole basis of McLean’s work, however, as many have inferred from a less literal translation of the exhibition’s title; the theme of mortality is one which is also important to the work. The origin of the phrase itself, from billboards presenting pro-Castro propaganda, draws a binary distinction, between the feminine-defined vitality of the Cuban soil and death, which is therefore defined as masculine. McLean’s work reflects this, in his juxtaposition of patriarchal imagery – a collection of shots of cars, the predominance of male figures in his portraits – with verdant pictures of Cuba’s green countryside. As well as a record of travels in a foreign land, Mclean’s photographs reflect the familiar, and indeed the familial, through the subjects that they return to repeatedly. His lens manages to find the internal in the external landscape and its inhabitants.

text © Dan Faichney

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