I was born in Santa Clara, Cuba on February 11, 1970. My full name is Manuel Ernesto Iriarte Brito, but in my adopted homeland of the United States I go by the name of Manny Iriarte.
My childhood was idyllic. I vividly recall wonderful memories of time spent with family, friends and neighbors in Cuba. At an early age, I was diagnosed with acute asthma and began to swim to strengthen my respiratory system, a hobby I pursued for almost 20 years. What began as a hobby to improve my weak lungs would ultimately lead to a distinguished career culminating in being selected to join Cuba’s national swimming team. I enjoyed competing at a national level, was awarded many medals and set a few national records along the way.
After finishing High School, I studied in a field related to sports, I ultimately received a Bachelor in Science and Physical Education at the university. It was during this time that my passion for photography emerged.
The curiosity to capture the "unusual" part of a scene or something that for many was completely normal garnered my undivided attention: the leg of an abandoned table, its details of deterioration, the macro-detail of a petal of a flower with the rest behind inconclusively distorted… always something behind the normal, was my primary concern. But how to convey such feelings or emotions without proper equipment, I had no camera at my disposal.
In Cuba, It was difficult enough to buy a ham and cheese sandwich, a coke or an apple for that matter. The idea of owning a professional camera in Cuba was unrealistic. The Cuban system was a complete disaster and daily survival was the order of the day. Fortunately, I befriended a Spanish tourist visiting Cuba named Joseba Iñiguez Ochoa, who kindly gifted me a 1973 Olympus OM10, I took it as a sign from God to pursue my passion.
So began my dream to become a professional photographer.
To earn a living I took pictures at birthday parties, made art photos and was contracted for personal shoots. But increasingly work was hard to find, not to mention the repressive nature of the government I was living under. With the passage of time my frustration with the Cuban government grew and I made the decision to leave my homeland. An epic journey to freedom, full of trials and tribulations, awaited me.
After several failed attempts to flee Cuba, I finally was able to escape and reach the United States, on December 7, 2000. The arduous journey took 21 days traveling thru Chile then on to Argentina before finally reaching the shores of freedom in California. Feeling emboldened and free at the detention center of Lancaster, California, I promised myself that I would accomplish all my dreams and pursue with passion all my goals in this land of opportunity. It would be up to me now to succeed.
I was determined to work hard, study, and validate my university degree in this new country and to live life to my fullest potential. I intended to also pursue my passion for photography. In due course, I became a Professor of Physical Education and personal trainer. And now gainfully employed, I poured every minute of free time to pursuing my passion for photography.
The inclination to take pictures of tobacco art was something completely unexpected. Although I had no formal training in photography and I did not even smoke cigars, I was drawn to the tobacco leaf since cigars were such a central aspect of Cuban culture and tradition. At the time, a dear friend gave me a box of cigars; I took several cigars and mixed them with traditional Cuban accents, a guayabera, a hat and a woman. I showed the picture to someone who fell in love with the image and was willing to pay me a fair price for the photo. Having secured my first sale gave me the confidence that what I was doing was something special, something different. The boost of confidence and pride I felt embarked me on this wonderful journey in the cigar industry.
In 2006, Angel Elizalde, a client at the gym where I worked, turned out to be the right hand man of one of the largest leaf cultivation companies in the world, ASP Enterprises. He saw the photos of my cigars and introduced me to Erik Calviño, the owner of Cigar Snob Magazine, a tobacco magazine from South Florida that had recently launched. Erik Calviño would become one of my best friends in this country and opened many doors in the cigar industry.
Since 2006, over 40 tobacco companies have used my photography and packaging concepts in their cigar advertisements. Along the way I also developed a passion for graphic design. I was fascinated by the idea of building something and then seeing it printed in sales and marketing materials. I have had the great honor and privilege of participating in marketing campaigns and producing images of important names in the Cigar trade such as Arturo Fuente Cigars Company, Padrón Cigars, Oliva Cigars, Perdomo, Alec Bradley and My Father Cigars to name a few.
Already fully involved and well acquainted with the tobacco industry, I had the privilege to work and collaborate with the greatest name of all time in the cigar industry: Arturo Fuente Cigars. Carlito Fuente Jr. is like a father and teacher to me. His humanity, love of family and cigars bonded our relationship as we endeavored to elevate his premier tobacco brand, OpusX, to new heights. OpusX Cigars is much more than a premier brand of tobacco, it is now a lifestyle.
In the meantime, other opportunities came knocking my way.
At an early age my dad introduced me to jazz and Arturo Sandoval was my all-time favorite artist. As life would have it, a great friend of mine, Michael Bulnes, presented me to Arturo Sandoval and a friendship soon developed which remains till today. I showed Sandoval my pictures and he requested I take pictures for him for his upcoming album cover and other marketing materials. One of the greatest honors of my life is the work displayed on Arturo Sandoval’s “A Time for Love” album cover.
International luxury entities such as the French maker of high end cigar accessories, S.T. Dupont and Carlito Fuente allowed me to develop an exclusive and limited edition line of humidors, ashtrays, and cutters commemorating the 20th year anniversary of Fuente Fuente OpusX. The S.T. Dupont accessories along with the famous blue OpusX box became a resounding commercial success.
Then, in 2014, Geneva’s world-renowned luxury watch maker, Hublot, partnered with the Fuente family to build a very limited timepiece in honor of Fuente. I had the privilege of participating in and developing the concept of the Fuente/Hublot project in 2017, the third limited edition release of the project. Creating and designing the total concept of the Hublot watch as a tribute to the 20th anniversary of the OpusX brand has been one of the highest highlights of my professional career.
I am excited and look forward to many other wonderful projects in the coming years and fulfill the promise I made to myself long ago when I arrived in this beautiful country.