René Peña
Photographer

It could be a police mugshot, a man's head in profile, except that the man wears sunglasses and a cigarette dangles from his lips. The skin tones range from black to darker black; the cigarette is a constant, bright white. This photograph, from the series "White Things" (2001), provides a good introduction to René Peña's art. Contrast – black and white, mouth and cigarette, subject and background –is no mere aesthetic choice; it's the key to his photographic universe.

"My work is basically about the relationship between individuals and a particular social group –how the individual keeps trying to have his own identity even though he can't escape his social group and society in general," Peña says. "We all have our institutions –family, religious, athletic, whatever –and they carry their own ideologies with them. We can't escape them. We're all institutionalised but we all think we're individuals. This duality is what motivates my work."

René de Jesús Peña González was born in 1957 and took his first pictures with the family camera when he was eight years old, but he had no formal photographic training. At Havana University he studied foreign languages (Greek, French, English). He grew up in the Havana suburb of Marianao, and he has never strayed far from the city. He lived for a while in Centro Habana, and three years ago he moved to Cerro. This neighbourhood –an enclave of Havana's richest families in the 19th century, home to a mostly poor, African-Caribbean population today –seems to suit Peña's need for contrast just fine. His flat is on the top floor, and the main feature of his rooftop view is the back of the immense building that houses the "Granma" newspaper offices.

Peña never went in for photojournalism, even while rejecting the notion of purely aesthetic photography. From his first solo exhibitions in the early 1990s it was apparent he was after some kind of larger truth: "Tales of the City" (1991), "Rituals and Self-Portraits" (1996), "Memories of the Flesh" (1997), "Burden and Blessing" (1998).

"I've never really worried about what critics or people who see my work have to say. In the beginning a lot of people talked to me about the North American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and said some of my photos looked like his. I started being called `the Cuban Robert Mapplethorpe.' So I went and looked at his photos and thought, `OK, I get it, we both take pictures of naked black men.' Really, I don't think Robert Mapplethorpe and I have much in common."

As influences he cites two contemporaries, Cuban photographers Eduardo Muñoz Ordoqui and Marta Maria Pérez Bravo, both of whom also work mainly in black-and-white. Recently, however, Peña has been experimenting with colour, and with digital cameras, and he seems surprisingly unperturbed by the age-old riddle of "what to photograph next?"

"I basically try to please myself," he shrugs. "My work is basically my idea of fun."