Syracuse University Magazine

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Rose Marie Cromwell

Tropical Focus

Rose Marie Cromwell G’12 forges friendships wherever her camera takes her. Through photography projects, she has stepped inside the everyday lives of Cubans and spent three years in Panama, where she helped establish a nonprofit organization for youth. Look at her photographs and it’s evident she enjoys capturing individuals in intimate, playful, and intriguing ways. In one, a Cuban man holds two chickens, one covering his face; in another, a man spreads a bunch of bananas across the top of his head. “I want it to be apparent in my photographs that there’s an interaction between the subject and the photographer because there always is,” says Cromwell, an M.F.A. student in the art photography program of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. “That’s what’s interesting to me—examining my relationships with people through photography and that interaction.”

As a Fulbright Fellow in 2006, Cromwell journeyed to Panama to pursue a documentary photography project exploring the country’s Afro-Caribbean culture and community. While working there, she was taken by a local bishop to Coco Solo, a former U.S. military base near the Panama Canal that is home to squatters relocated there decades ago by the Panamanian government. “I was struck by the extreme poverty and conditions these people were living in,” she says. “Millions of dollars pass by on the canal every day and here are these people living without running water.” She began photographing—and building relationships—with residents. She taught English to Coco Solo children and raised money for a Christmas party. Moved to do more, Cromwell joined with Panamanian artist Lorena Endara and local pastor Michael Brown to found the nonprofit Cambio Creativo to facilitate a growing array of educational workshops. They want Coco Solo youth to learn skills, build self-confidence, and express themselves—and create an alternative to street life. “For four years, I’ve watched a lot of these kids grow up and some, who weren’t doing so well, now work as our interns and are doing super well,” she says. “We really want them to feel their voices are important. These kids should have that opportunity to feel empowered.” 

While continuing her efforts with Cambio Creativo, she works as a darkroom printer for her mentor, the acclaimed Panamanian photographer Sandra Eleta. Cromwell’s passion to communicate through art took hold when she began shooting pictures at age 12. The Seattle native chose photography as a career path and, as an undergraduate at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, she spent a month studying abroad in Cuba. The experience proved invaluable, forcing her to examine her ideals about the island nation with the reality of life there. Her photography reflected this—and led to her recognition as one of “25 under 25 Up-and-Coming American Photographers” by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and powerHouse Books. 

Since arriving at SU on a fellowship in 2009, Cromwell has undertaken creative educational projects with children from the city’s Near West Side, exhibited the photography of her Coco Solo workshop students at the Warehouse, and spent a great deal of time at Light Work. She also continues her work in Panama and Cuba, the subject of her M.F.A. final project. “My relationships in Cuba are at the core of this work,” she writes in her artist’s statement about the project. “Being an outsider makes my relationships complicated and my work reflects these complexities. Ironically, it is the same complications that can make for life-affirming experiences.” Those, no doubt, are the kind of experiences Cromwell will continue to discover with her camera.  —Jay Cox

Photo by Susan Kahn