Saturday, March 25, 2017

Warmth and Joy Amidst Dreams Deferred

In 1980, I was granted a fellowship to do oral histories with Cuban teachers and take photographs in the country’s schools. Unfortunately, shortly after Ronald Reagan’s January 1981 inauguration as the 40th president of the United States, the Cuban embargo was hardened and United States foundation travel came to a halt. Although I wanted to make the ninety-mile trip from Florida to the country many times, oral histories on white supremacy in the United States and then time with individuals who were part of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa delayed the trip until 2016. Traveling to Cuba took almost four decades.

I went to Cuba in 2016 with seven other photographers as part of Peter Turnley’s photo-journalist workshop. Turnley, whose book, “Cuba a Grace of Spirit,” along with the 1980s and 1990s photographs by David Alan Harvey and Cuban photographers Alberto Korda, Raul Corrales, Maria Eugenia Haya, and the emerging Nestor Marti, set the standards for visually portraying the Cuban people.

The photographs included in this series were taken in Havana and Vinales. My mentors for this work could not be more different—Bruce Gilden who taught me in April 2016 and Peter Turnley, who was my teacher in Cuba. I took Gilden’s workshop because my street photography was always close-up—street portraits and that is Gilden’s forte. He taught me to hone my craft. To get even closer, which corroborated my sense that the story is in the eyes. I will always believe that, but I went with Turnley to Cuba because I wanted my photographs to tell broader stories—eyes with context. Peter shoots horizontally, and like Gilden, he made me a better photographer. Thus, most, but not all, of the Cuban series is horizontal—people in their lives.

While I’ve read a great deal on Fidel and the revolution as well as on the literacy campaign and education, I make no claim as an expert on the island. I do know three things.

1.     Life in Cuba is hard for many people. While many Americans join Cuban exiles in magnifying this fact, there are seldom caveats that include the United States blockade of the Island or the fall of the Soviet Union. Cuban people, while they are warm toward United States people, are clear on the great damage that the embargo created economically for their country. They are also very honest about the hardships that haunted the 1990s because Soviet support no longer existed. About a year before I visited Cuba, Bernardine Dohrn told me about a conversation she had listened to between revolution leaders about the mistakes that had been made throughout the many decades since the revolution. Reflecting on my recent conversations with Cuban photographers and other government workers, I witnessed great honesty as these people discussed the reality of poverty in the country.

2.     People in Cuba effuse a warmth that I have never before experienced. There’s a stoop and park culture that facilitates conversation. As I walked narrow streets in Havana I was invited into individual’s homes on more than one occasion. Inevitably, this led to conversation. Because of the country’s historical relationship with South Africa, my experiences offered an entree on the streets of Havana. But who can predict? At a boxing gym in the city, the conversation was with a young pugilist whose hair was styled like that of Cleveland Cavalier basketball player Iman Shumpert. Our conversation was about how much he loved LeBron James. With one of the young Cuban photographers that assisted Turnley as well as a rural, organic chef, the talk centered on the warmth of Emril Legassee and inaccessibility of Anthony Bordain. Finally, there was more more serious discussions about Cuba and the United States and the possibilities for young people.

3. If I was a poor person, I would choose to live in Havana over any city in the United States. There are five reasons why Cuba is preferable:

a. People are provided shelter by the government. Because of the economy buildings are tired and some, maybe many, are in bad disrepair. And it is not as if people don’t ask tourists for money, they do. But there are not people sleeping on the streets nor are there individuals waiting in line to enter shelters for beds or meals.
b. Individuals and families have ration cards for food that doesn’t meet what we middle class Americans would probably deem sufficient. But people themselves ration, they receive grains, vegetables, and protein and are able to supplement the government food very cheaply in the local, private, markets that exist in the country.
c. Cuba provides free, universal health care for its citizens. Cuban doctors are lauded throughout the World and take pride in serving their fellow citizens. Again, because of the economic conditions, facilities and supplies are lacking. Individuals, however, are able to see excellent medical caregivers.
d. There is free universal education in the country – toddlers through university – and there is an emphasis on standards in all schools.
e. There are no guns – individuals can’t bear arms which means that you don’t worry about stray bullets like people often do in the United States.

So I walked the streets of Havana and visited rural Vinales in December 2016. I took
 photographs of people in parks, on their stoops, in their homes, and on the streets. I visited 
dance companies and boxing gyms and schools and had conversations with women and men on 
tobacco farms as I took their pictures. The colors and the people depict a liveliness that I have 
never before experienced as I’ve used my camera. The photographs presented in this essay 
represent that same exuberance.  

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