‘Fluent in people’

Feeling ‘reborn’ after a kidney transplant, photographer Randy Batista captures his cultural ties and myriad personalities in an Appleton Museum of Art exhibition.

Randy Batista and wife Linda in White Post, Virginia, 2021. [Randy Batista]

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Posted July 21, 2023 | By Julie Garisto

Never shy or reluctant to approach others while taking photos, Randy Batista could be called a people whisperer. 

Through portraiture and street photography, the Gainesville-based photographer captures the essence of his subjects and compels the viewer to look longer and closer in his latest solo exhibition, “Caught Up in History and Captured on Film,” currently on display at the Appleton Museum of Art.

“My parents were very influential,” Batista explained. “They had this underlying thing of just being just really gregarious. Even as a kid, I wasn’t afraid of talking to anybody. I was always really very observant of people and their body language. … My sense of it was that you really have to know who these individuals are and that you’re spending time capturing basically their spirit, so I would have them spend an hour with me before they even did the photo session. And I would just watch them and watch their body language, how they interacted together.”

To say Batista has lived a colorful life underscores the inadequacy of biographical description. 

Batista shared that he “was conceived in Cuba,” born in Tampa in 1949 and, in 1954, was brought back to Cuba and raised there from the age of 5. He attended school in his parents’ hometown of Holguín, speaking only in Spanish until he returned to Central Florida as a teenager in 1961, relearning English all over again. 

His father, who had a bachelor’s degree in soil science from the University of Florida, wanted his children to become U.S. citizens, but the death of one of his 12 brothers kept him home in Cuba, managing the family’s crops.

“My grandparents had major land holdings out there, sugar cane, cattle, you name it,” Batista said. “My grandparents from my mother’s side were Italian cigar rollers from Ybor City.”

Batista lived with his grandparents in Mango in his teens, until he attended the University of Florida, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. 

“One of my roommates bought a camera and we went to Orange Lake one weekend,” Batista reminisced. “He handed me a roll of film, and I took photos with his camera. When I got the roll of film back, I said to myself, ‘Oh, I love this.’”

Batista took classes at UF taught by famed photographer and professor Jerry Uelsmann, who would become a lifelong friend. The professor bequeathed his hound, Reba, to Batista before he died on April 4, 2022. 

Randy Batista’s “El Tesoro de la Sala (The Living Room Treasure).” Havana, 1996, (gelatin silver print) depicts a Cuban family keeping their car indoors to prevent thieves from stealing parts.

A photo of the revered mentor, taken by Batista, currently hangs in an exhibition titled “Jerry Uelsmann: His Life and Art” at the Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville.

In 1974, Batista captured scenes from Ybor City, photos currently on display in the Appleton Museum of Art’s balcony gallery.  

“Everything was there,” he said of Ybor. “They had this bar downstairs at the Centro Español where all of these Spaniards basically hung out, played dominos, drank and read the newspaper. I was always fascinated by these people when I would visit them before going to college.”

Most of the photos, he explained, were intentionally taken from the human perspective, which is about 36 inches. He used a film camera with a 24-millimeter lens.

“I just ended up spending days there, you know, just photographing all these guys, and that project was very well received by my classmates and professors,” Batista said.

Later, he worked in a camera store, took wedding and passport photos, and commissioned portraits. He opened his own business at 21 SE Second Place, next to the Hippodrome Theatre in Gainesville in 1981. The Media Image Studio brought new life to an old building that had once been home to a Pontiac dealership and service station. 

Before closing Media Image in 2013, Batista hosted several local exhibits such as “Chairwomen of Gainesville,” which brought in around $75,000 to help women with breast cancer. For the exhibit, Batista captured “all the muckety-muck women” of the community in black and white, in their favorite chair.

A portrait of Bo Diddley, taken by Randy Batista.

Randy Batista’s (American, b. 1949) “Miembros del Centro Español de Tampa (Members of The Spanish Center of Tampa).” Ybor City, 1974. gelatin silver print.

Fast-forward to his current show in the balcony gallery of the Appleton Museum, where we witness the photographer tackling the age-old question, “What’s in a name?” and likens his own multicultural name—Randy Obdulio Armando Batista Gonzales Cuba Cacciatore—to a journey through lineages. Through thoughtfully narrated title cards, we learn that a name can be like DNA, tethering us to our past and enlivening us with twists and turns, inspiring our present and future selves. 

Batista took the photos in Holguín and Havana, Cuba, in 1996, where he found inspiration “on the crumbling street corners.” Seeing the abject poverty and disrepair came quite as a shock after being gone for three decades.

“I was just devastated just seeing what these people were going through,” Batista lamented. “The buildings were not painted, and people were putting their cars in their living rooms because they didn’t want thieves to rob parts from them.”

But it’s not all about despair. “The thing about the Cuban people is, in lieu of all they endured, is that their art and culture has become sort of like their lollipop. It was what they live for,” Batista once told WUFT.

From his Cuba trip to capturing Bo Diddley in a legendary portrait, Batista has sharpened both his photographic and people skills, expertise that has led to many vital connections. 

One colleague valued him so much, she donated her kidney to him late last year.

“Honestly, the only way I can describe it is that it’s like a new life, you know?” Batista professed. “It’s like being reborn.”

The donor, former “UF Alumni” magazine editor Liesl O’Dell, had an ongoing working relationship and friendship with Batista, who suffered from complications caused by diabetes and a congenital illness for several years. (You can watch a touching UF-produced YouTube video about Batista and O’Dell’s experience here: tinyurl.com/RandyBatista)

Randy Batista with kidney donor Liesl O’Dell. [Photo by UF Health]

“Randy is fluent in Spanish and English, but he is also fluent in people,” the UF article offered, praising the university’s longtime contributor for his “intrinsic respect” for each person he meets. This interchange inspired a wide range of projects, from UF Health’s youngest patients in intense care to the dean of the College of Dentistry wearing a pair of dentures as high-fashion clogs.

What’s next for Batista? “I want to take photos of kidney transplant patients and their donors. … One of my goals is to start working with the UF Health transplant team in an effort to attract more living donations.”

A common misconception is that a kidney transplant replaces an old kidney with someone else’s kidney. Batista, instead, now has three kidneys. 

“One is right in front of mine on the right side of my belly, right by my hip!” he exclaimed. “I call her Lily, the nickname of her donor.”

Randy Batista’s “Caught Up in History and Captured on Film” is on exhibit at the Appleton Museum of Art through Jan. 28. For more information, visit appletonmuseum.org.

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