Sunday 5 October 2008

Photographing Cuba

A convincing photo book is often based on a convincing idea – and this is the case of The Idea of Cuba: When in May 1998, the photographer and writer Alex Harris was on his first trip to Cuba, he observed almost everything on the island “from the perspective of the backseat of 1950s-era American cars. I went to Cuba that spring with a specific plan. I wanted to use my camera to explore how people in the United States and Cuba see each other, and the view through the windshields of these aging American cars seemed to be an ideal approach.”

Indeed, and an intriguing, and a persuasive, idea at that: to look at a new country through the windshields of the cars of one’s childhood. Most visitors to Cuba do it the other way ‘round – they have their picture taken with these old North American cars. There is of course nothing wrong with that except that it may strike Cubans as a bit silly – I at least thought it rather strange when my Cuban ex-wife, on her first visit to my native Switzerland, insisted that I take her picture next to a number of totally unremarkable (but new) cars. Until I realised that this is precisely what visitors to Cuba normally do.

Photo books usually show pictures without words, they rarely come with an accompanying text, often however without captions, or with captions we could easily do without – such as Mexico 1934, or Dog (when the photo shows a dog), for instance. While such an approach – “I do not want to influence you, trust your eyes, judge for yourself”, the photographers seem to say – might be okay for art photography (whatever that is), it is inappropriate for documentary photography or for press photography that should come with words that are not limited to (hopefully) informative captions but include narratives that inform the reader about the coming into being of the pictures. Thankfully, this is the case of The Idea of Cuba in which the texts help one understand what one's eyes register.

Let me illustrate this with two excerpts:

“In my first days in Havana I wondered how Cubans felt as they drove through their daily lives inside these symbols of capitalist triumph. Whatever can be said about failed U.S. policies toward Cuba, surely the continued existence of these cars on Cuban roads was a testimony to the North American way, to the success and durability of our political system. Yet the more time I spent in Havana, the more I realized that every car I rode in had been completely rebuilt from the inside out. Many of the parts were borrowed from Russian or European models or manufactured by Cuban mechanics who could not legally import anything from the United States. These 1950s-era cars may have had North American shells, but the fact that they continued to run was proof of Cuban ingenuity, determination, and the kind of sacrifice that José Martí admired.

Under the May Havana sun, I might as well have been working in a sauna. Sweating inside these cars with my view camera, film holders, tripod, battery pack, and lights, I sometimes worried about my sanity. And as I saw the richness of life on Havana streets unfolding outside my window, it seemed crazy to limit myself to this narrow view of the city. But as a photographer I recognized that the greatest depth of field is achieved by setting the smallest aperture on a lens. After almost thirty years of making pictures in the American South, New Mexico, and Alaska, I knew another kind of depth could be achieved by narrowing the subject of my focus as well. For the time being, I would continue to photograph Cuba from inside cars.”

Alex Harris had never heard of José Martí when he first set foot on the island but soon became interested in him (("I traveled to Cuba to make landscapes, and discovered José Martí") for photographers sometimes travel with open eyes (and – in this case – with an open mind) and Martí is difficult to avoid in Cuba for his statues are everywhere. “Martí had a kind of nobility. He was stoic and wise. He seemed to know a secret I wanted to learn.”

By describing how he went about his work, what he experienced, where he went, and why, and what went through his mind, Alex Harris lets the reader participate in what he learns about Martí, and about Cuba.

“My larger problem was how to begin to encompass in a photograph something as complex and cerebral as Martí's idea of Cuba. Near the end of his life, in the early days of photography, Martí anticipated my dilemma in a question jotted in one of his notebooks: "Who could photograph thought, as a horse is photographed in full gallop or a bird in flight?"
As I made my first photographs of his memorials, I saw Martí's words at the base of many statues. These aphorisms had been extracted by Cubans themselves as the essence of Martí's idea of Cuba, then chiseled into stone or stamped onto copper plaques. In one of the first I read, Martí seemed to predict his own future role. A nation that honors its heroes strengthens itself. I began to copy every Martí adage I saw. These words of wisdom read like agnostic Cuban cousins of Solomon's proverbs. With all and for the good of all; To be cultured is to be free.
Of all Martí's writings, these brief sayings became a kind of compass I used to find my way around the island. If I couldn't photograph Martí's thoughts, at least I'd have his most important ideas in mind when I decided to snap the shutter. This seemed a way for me to look at contemporary Cuba through the lens of history, to see the present in relation to Martí's imagined future.”

Documentary photography, the way I understand and like it, is about making discoveries. And this is what Alex Harris’ Idea of Cuba is: the document of a personal discovery that transcends the personal - for the more personal an approach, the more universal the result often becomes.

“I know much more about Cuba now than I did when I made these photographs. But I do not believe that I could now make better pictures. This book is an act of faith in myself as a photographer to discover something in my pictures I didn't already know or feel, something I wasn't already looking for.”

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