Date: Fri, 24 May 2013 20:08:06 +0200
- James Duncan Davidson
People in Cuba
During our pre-trip briefing the night before leaving for Cuba, David Hobby talked a bit about how he was going to approach the week photographically and what he hoped to see in the quick edit of six photos that we all would present at the end of our time in Havana. During his talk, he called me out saying, “Duncan goes to these incredible places and then posts all these beautiful photos that could be post-apocalyptic because they don’t have any people in them.” Then, he issued a challenge directly to me: “I want to see people in your shots this trip.”
Fair enough. He had a point. Loving a good challenge, my response was: “You’re on!”
It wasn’t all that hard, of course, to photograph people in Cuba. Cubans are friendly, and curious. Even the street hustlers wanting to take you to a bar for mojitos or a shop to get a cigar are happy to hang out, talk, and give you their perspective on life if you don’t say yes to their proposition. Sometimes that perspective was polished. Other times, not so much. We heard a lot of raw emotion about things that happened in the past.
Despite the ease with which we could mix with locals, it would have been all to easy to let the prescribed activities we participated in—we travelled on a person-to-person cultural exchange permit from the US Department of State and the Cuban tourist authorities have a vested interest in showing the most polished side of their country—to drive the photographic agenda. If that’d happened, we would all have come home with portfolios of old folks smoking cigars and hanging out in lovingly cared for decaying old houses. We wanted more than that.
So, we took full advantage of our free time outside the prescribed activities. We got up early, braved the hot and humid afternoons when the sun was at its strongest, and stayed up into the wee hours of the morning wandering streets—sometimes in parts of town that we were warned about. “Watch your camera!” was something that Bryan and I heard more than a few times as we wandered through the sketchier areas.
There are many that want to force one kind of narrative or another onto Cuba because of its past, its odd relationship with the USA as a result, and the interesting position it finds itself in right now as it transitions from whatever it was into whatever it becomes. Some of those narratives are fascinating. Others verge on shrill or even extremist. All of them have a place and deserve to be part of the conversation. If you stick too much to the traditional narratives, however, and focus solely on what was or how it came to be, you’ll miss the most important story right now: The transition in Cuba is in full swing.
I can’t begin to communicate how much has changed since I was last there two years ago on a marine science mission. Commerce has really ramped up. A lot of people are taking those small steps from selling a few goods to opening up shops to planning for a future. Every time I told someone that I was there before, they asked if I noticed the changes. How could one not? Even the food was better in quality on average everywhere we went.
Have the Cuban people been through a lot? Very much so. Is it all suddenly great and rosy? Not even close. Things happen or don’t happen on a whim of persons unknown. Major problems, like pervasive street prostitution that is openly ignored by authorities, are easily visible. Will there continue to be problems going forward? Almost certainly. This won’t—and probably can’t—be a perfect process and there will be some big bumps as the gap between haves and have nots inevitably increases. But, almost everyone I met on the trip—certainly everyone I photographed—was participating in that process and looking forward to the future.
Of course, my viewpoint during my time in Cuba isn’t without bias. I was there as an outsider. If we chose, we could have stayed in a relatively insulated bubble drinking mojitos and smoking cigars that cost a month or more of a doctor’s salary—something like $25—while sitting under palm trees. Yes, we had mojitos and smoked a cigar or two, but we also got out and walked five to ten miles a day and saw as much as we could. The people in these photos are representative of who I saw on those walks.