Photographer Rose Marie Cromwell works in the diasporas of the Caribbean and Central and Latin America, pinpointing the places where globalization and intimate stories intersect. From chiaroscuro still lifes of cacao fruits to dynamic portraits of friends on the street, Cromwell brings an intimate tenderness to the photos. While each image is suffused with light and specificity, the Miami-based photographer’s work is also rooted in the geopolitical context of the communities she documents.
In tackling big ideas through personal stories, the throughline for Cromwell has always been an urge to connect. From an early age, she recognized that she liked to interact with people, and that photography was a tool to do so. In the late 1990s, photography wasn’t yet democratized by the broad availability of digital cameras, and later, smartphones. Cromwell recalls that at the time, she didn’t have a clear vision of what being a photographer meant, or whether she should pursue a path to define herself as a photojournalist or an artist. Twenty years later, Cromwell still grapples with this question. “I always have a hard time describing who I am or what I do. I don't know whether to say I’m a photographer or an artist, an artist and a journalist—do I have to bring in photography? Depending on the context, I’ll describe myself in a different way. I think that's why I went into visual arts, because these words can box you in so much.”
After devouring photography courses in high school, the artist earned her undergraduate degree in photography at Maryland Institute College of Art. Cromwell credits a study-abroad program in Cuba with helping her learn how to see the world. The photographer established relationships with people that she would return to again and again, eventually building up a body of work over the course of seven years that became the photo book El Libro Supremo de la Suerte.
Published in 2018, the book draws on Cromwell’s long stays in Havana with her friend Milagros and builds its visual narrative around La Charada, a commonly played underground Cuban lottery with roots in Chinese laborers. Coming to Cuba in the late 1800s to work on sugar plantations and build the country’s railroad, immigrant workers brought with them centuries-old Chinese traditions of lotteries and games of chance. Today, Cromwell’s friend Milagros and many other Cubans embrace the lottery and the way it imbues everyday moments with meaning. Numbers from one to one hundred correspond with specific objects and experiences (with numbers one through thirty-six drawn from Chinese culture), so bets are made based on signs gleaned from one’s day-to-day experiences or even dreams. For example, the number seventy-three corresponds with park, razor, apples, suitcase, chess, and cigarette. Because each number’s collection of associations has both positive and negative connotations, a layer of interpretation gives La Charada the power of subjectivity: Is the perfect apple you ate at lunch or the razor you cut your cheek with this morning the meaningful narrative of the day?
Understood through the lens of La Charada, the viewer is drawn to the details in each image in El Libro Supremo de la Suerte: beachgoers partially buried in sand; a proud cigar-smoking man sporting large rings and staring down the camera; an intimate snapshot of artificial flowers. What do these elements signify? What is the larger meaning of seemingly simple moments? “I work to make everyday things more monumental through the act of photographing them. And that was something I felt that Milagros was doing the way she would look at her everyday and assign a number to what would happen, and making it more monumental that way,” says Cromwell.
Cromwell invests deeply in relationships, with her friends not just inspiring storylines but also becoming visual subjects. She also works with models hired off Craigslist and folks she meets on the street; other scenes are serendipitous moments she caught by chance. “There isn't one rule for me. I leave things open to work in different ways,” says Cromwell. “Sometimes images that look performed aren’t, and sometimes it’s the opposite. I’m interested in that line between how performance can function and signal to something that can be true even though it’s acted out.”
“Sometimes images that look performed aren’t, and sometimes it’s the opposite. I’m interested in that line between how performance can function and signal to something that can be true even though it’s acted out.”
This spirit of collaboration and openness to chance builds bridges between her personal and commissioned work. While Cromwell’s artistic imagery has gained acclaim, she is also an editorial and documentary photographer, with commissions from The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Airbnb, and other boldface names. The different lines of work have distinctions, from deadlines (weeks versus years) to the degree of agency she has in directing the narrative, and the relative abstraction or directness of the message. But Cromwell relishes moments where the different facets of her practice talk to each other.
With all her work, Cromwell aims “to express another viewpoint. For people to see things they see all the time—that seem normal or mundane—to then see them in a new light.” She also actively pitches stories about art, social justice, and subcultures where she’s built relationships. In doing so, Cromwell leverages her talent, her long-term investment in specific people and places, and her access to major media outlets to shed light on nuanced and underreported issues.
Cromwell’s focus of late has been a body of work about Panama, a project she’s been slowly building since a Fulbright fellowship over a decade ago brought her to the Central American country that’s at the nexus of global trade and local life. Based on her initial experiences at Coco Solo, a decommissioned U.S. military base that became Panamanian public housing, Cromwell sketched out a visual story following the coming-of-age of one particular boy. The child, adopted by a local pastor, was raised in Coco Solo, in a community of about five hundred Panamanians who were living without running water or sewage because the government had stopped maintaining the housing. Rooting her narrative in the present moment of her protagonist’s life, she sought to show the paradoxes of growing up without basic infrastructure but within arm’s reach of the biggest global thoroughfare of trade: “You see the world's wealth pass by, yet people don't have water to drink,” says Cromwell.
Through investing her time in this individual narrative, she came to see the importance of understanding and telling the history of U.S. military intervention in Panama (and across Central and Latin America) over the years. To deepen her story, Cromwell has been studying and incorporating images from different eras, enriching her present practice and honoring the lasting legacy of photographers from the past. Thanks to the travel restrictions of COVID-19—previously, Cromwell was on the move for work nearly every week—she’s had a chance to dig deeper into archival research.
Through investing her time in this individual narrative, she came to see the importance of telling the history of U.S. military intervention across Central and Latin America over the years.
In addition to diving into the work of previous generations, Cromwell is passionate about working with younger creatives. “I have mentors and mentees, and I like trying to support younger photographers in whatever way I can,” she explains. Working with the youth of Coco Solo, Cromwell co-founded an arts education nonprofit. “I learn from my assistants—from technical stuff to what younger people are thinking about or doing,” she notes. “I see it as a mutual relationship of knowledge sharing. Even if I hire somebody as an assistant, I gain so much from having somebody else to collaborate with.”
Whether presenting her work in digital, book, or exhibition form, Cromwell establishes an intentional relationship with the audience. Playing with how the viewer experiences each image, she scales images up and down; layers photographs on top of each other to obscure or connect visual elements; and even changes the sizes of the pages within an individual book. In doing so, Cromwell shapes the interactions between each image, as well as the space where the viewer experiences her visual world. “I don't want an image to just sit in my negative files forever, so I try to think about the best way to present it. And the ideas change, too. I like to try different things every time.”
By opening her experience to the lives of others, and being unafraid to invest in, nurture, and then share a highly specific viewpoint, Cromwell brings a deep sense of humanity to her photography. Although she works in modes of documentation—anchoring her images in the complex histories of real places—she embraces subjectivity. This sense of humanity is a strength that underpins the gravity of much of Cromwell’s work: By connecting with our fellow people on an individual level, we’re able to more authentically witness, as the photographer described it, “how some things far away can affect things closer up.”
When Cromwell first began photographing, “I felt like you had to be either a journalist or an artist, and you couldn't be both. But now I’m both and I’m happy about that.” Today, creatives need to take a stand. “I think it's good to evaluate what you want to contribute. It's important to figure out as an artist and a person what you’re questioning in the world and how you can contribute.”