Havana Club Guest Editor: Julien Escot on photography

19 Feb. 2018
The 2012 Grand Prix winner is also a talented photographer and his last project took him to Cuba.

Bartenders don’t only shake drinks and run bars. They are passionate about other things too. At Bar News, we have decided to ask some of our friends to open up and tell us all about some of the things they love as dearly as a perfect Daiquiri. The first chapter of this series is provided by 2012 Grand Prix Winner, Julien Escot - a great bartender and a very talented photograph. Follow us on Facebook to discover 5 photos he took in Cuba.

June 2012, Havana: I have just won the world title at the Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix final. This title, a crowning moment in my bartender’s career, rewards fifteen years of total dedication to my profession.  From my beginnings in the palaces of the French Riviera or Courchevel to my international experiences, the publication of my cocktail recipes books and the opening of my bar, the Papa Doble, in 2009, I only lived and breathed for the world of the bar. At this level, more than a craft, it had become a true passion.

Yet in 1999, fresh into my second season at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden Roc, I had a moment of doubt regarding my career choice. I was working at the bar and it hosted the ‘off’ nights of the Cannes festival. I had just met Peter Beard, an illustrious photographer who shared his time between his dandy life in New York and the adventures of a photographer and advocate of the animal cause in Africa. One evening, he forgot at the bar a bag containing some of his famous "photo diaries". These logs were made of photos of top models, elephant carcasses, newspaper collages or handwritten texts. The visual shock was such that it took me two days to decide to return them to him. And for two days, he was looking for them everywhere, claiming that it represented three months of work. With the hundred dollars reward he gave me, I bought my first two books of photography, one by Helmut Newton and the other by Jean-Loup Sieff, who were both fashion and nude photographers: it was my second visual shock.

For a while, I was not sure about anything: "Did I make a mistake? Should I give up bartending and go to a photography school in Paris?” It was a dilemma. Like many hospitality workers, I had not picked this profession by vocation but because my academic results had limited my opportunities. And all of a sudden, I finally felt like I knew what my vocation was and what my job really should have been. On the other hand, I liked what I was doing and I was feeling fulfilled in this prestigious hotel which had given me the chance to start my bartending career at the highest level. I had my foot in the door, and could hope to climb the ladder in luxury hotels. The years of struggle were finally behind me and the prospect of being able to earn my living correctly convinced me not to change path. Since I have an obsessive personality, when I do something I do it to the max, so I set aside photography for almost twenty years. Of course, I bought one or two cameras and made a few photos, but nothing that could be published.

About two years ago, I finally dived in. I had the feeling that I had arrived at a point where I was sufficiently accomplished in my profession and in need of other ways of expressing myself. So I decided to devote the funds and the time that my second passion required. The idea was not to turn it into a professional activity, to draw an income from it, but rather to produce my own projects, maybe with the idea of publishing books. My professional stability allowed me the freedom to finally start this project that was close to my heart, with maturity and no concession. So I bought the camera of my dreams, a Leica MP 240 with a 50mm and a 90 mm lenses, I took some courses and practiced during holidays and business trips. As your typical obsessive, I bought so many photography books that I had to get rid of some of my cocktail books – I filled two big boxes and gave them to the hospitality school in Montpellier.

I already had in mind several ideas but it seemed self-evident to me that I had to lead my first tangible project in Cuba. There are numerous reasons for this. I have history with Cuba and Havana, which gives a degree of legitimacy to the project; geopolitical changes led me to believe that this was the moment; the country and its inhabitants are extremely photogenic, which is a huge source of inspiration. I am neither the first nor the last to go to Cuba for a photography project. And I have seen many since I started mine. Although I really want to bring out the atmosphere, the vibrations and the power of this island, I’m not aiming to document or report. I want to build my own images and take my time to offer something that is both accomplished and personal.

I went to Cuba for the fourth time a year ago, but it was the first time the trip was solely dedicated to photography. It was more complicated that I expected and my project changed in contact with Cuba’s reality. I will soon return to take more photos and finish the work I set out to do. But this is another story… For now, I’m happy that Havana Club is giving me this opportunity to allow you a small window on this more intimate side of my work.

Julien Escot