In preparing for my first trip to photograph in Cuba, I prepared myself for a country for which my country had already prepared me.
The "unhappy island" Kennedy cursed. A place Bush, the younger, warned was devoid of pleasure, "a tropical gulag," a slum where it was "against the law for three Cubans to meet without permission," (something I imagined him researching when drafting the Patriot Act).
I scrambled before my flight to get my hands on the best anti-depressants, anti-perspirants, anti-freedom necessities (film, lenses, the name of a good lawyer). I told my family and friends where they could reach me -- not that they'd be able to. Reagan told of a Cuba that lacked basic material possessions, much less freedom. Horsecarts were apparently the norm, so phones and mail, it could be assumed, were out of the question.
I arrived to a March heat I can't describe without breaking a sweat. This was the mattress-thick humidity of which I'd been warned. It hung over coastline palms and Havana's worn charms with a stubborn omnipresence. Bush's voice rang its caveats in my ear: "this is the first invisible gunman guarding the prison that is Cuba" and I felt a palpable sense of dread in my stomach lined with the scarcest trace of hope.
That was 6 p.m.
By 11 p.m. the next night, I was soaked in sweat and picking my jaw up from the ground like a cartoon duck recovering from an anvil-whacking. Just twenty-seven hours into my stay in poor, sad, hellhole Havana, I walked into a seaside party that could refute six decades of American rhetoric; a tropical shindig that could wow Caesar, Cleopatra, Bond, Warhol, the Rat Pack, the cast of Jersey Shore... you get the point.
Waves crashed over the seawall on a 1950s-style oceanfront as 200 beautiful Cubans danced poolside in a 90-degree mist to the music of Kelvis Ochoa and his band. This wasn't an assembly of fat, disgruntled women rolling cigars and cursing Gringos while their grandchildren begged in rags. This was paradise -- for a tourist, for an American photographer, for anyone. And the best part? It happened every night.
My own voice rang in my ear:
"Welcome to Cuba, asshole."
What I was lucky enough to have stumbled into (with the help of a friend I made at my hotel) was a farandula -- a clique of well-connected, influential Cubans. In this case, they were artists (painters, photographers, actors, film directors, dancers, musicians, models, etc.) and they represented a side of Cuba that our well-informed presidents either missed, dismissed or intentionally ignored. These folks were glamorous, obstensibly well-off and, above all else, free. Watching them dance and mingle around the pool, I stopped worrying about my impressions and started worrying about theirs -- their dark-eyed glances both sexy and suspicious. Did they see a wild-haired photographer cut from their cloth or some dumbass capitalist American with a pricey camera around his neck? Thankfully, after a few introductions, a few drinks and some enjoyable mingling, the group seemed to accept me as another artist in the fold. And like that, I became their pale tagalong; an honorary part of a farandula.
On a typical night on that trip (and on my seven return trips) I'd catch up on the group's whereabouts via text message (yes, they have phones, mostly smartphones, though reception is spotty and Words With Friends has yet to catch on) and we'd meet at an artist's or musician's studio somewhere in Havana. Things would start out like they must have in the Parisian salons of the 1930s and then, as we drank more, chatted and migrated about the city, they'd evolve into scenes from Studio 54 of the 1970s.
The artists (people like Rene Francisco, Rachel Valdez, Roberto Fabelo, et al.) danced, painted, drank, screened films on giant stucco walls in their courtyards, collaborated with one another, wrote and chatted while I photographed (and eventually joined them in the dancing, painting, drinking, etc.).
Now -- if it's not yet clear -- my intention was never to use my photographs to prove a social or political point -- no more than it was to use them as an excuse to drink 18-year-old scotch with glowing actresses and smoke Cuban cigars with famed directors like Jorge "Pichi" Perugorria (though I didn't shy away when the latter offers presented themselves). My goal, as I've said before, was to peek into everyday life on the island and pose the question to subject and audience (Cuban and American, respectively) whether the things we've been told about one another are true.
And the answer, it seems, was "yes" and "no."
Yes, Cuba is as poor as America is rich -- maybe poorer -- though neither country is without the notable exceptions they keep under wraps. Cuba's poverty is economic, not social. So, no, Cuba isn't unhappy, isn't a tropical prison, isn't a torrid police state. Cubans carry the burden of their government's restrictions -- and our government's embargo -- but they do so with a sincere hope and visceral joy that even America's well-off seem to lack.
In a way that won't make sense to many Americans, the well-off Cuban artists I met and photographed seemed the embodiment of the hopes of their poorest neighbors. (I know what you're thinking, that'd be like calling the Kardashians "signs on the road to America's recovery.") But this is different.
The existence of this farandula, for me, doesn't paw at the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, but rather provides a vision of what the island can be. Its members serve, in ways, as ambassadors for a country that needs ambassadors more than anything. They travel freely, spend lavishly and live lives of relative luxury. (The operative word being "relative." By U.S. standards, the artists -- which include the sons of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara -- would still be considered middle-class). And as for the rest of Havana -- well, take a stroll on the Malceon after dark on any weekend and tell me if the denizens seem to be quaking in cloistered groups; if the teens are faking their smiles and the lovers' their passion. Then go ahead and scan my photos of the all-but-unannounced Peace Without Borders concert in Revolution Square featuring Juanes and Miguel Bose.
Fewer than three people? Try more than a million.
All porcelain hope and horsecart mobility? Don't fucking bet on it.
I think it's important to note again that Habana Libre wasn't assembled as propaganda or counter-propaganda or anything in between. It doesn't represent its photographer's point, so much as his point-of-view; my vision of Cuba and no one else's. It represents an island -- or my idea of one -- ripe with seduction, mystery, sensuality and, yes, a little danger. The Cuba depicted in my book isn't an overtly political place, but a thoroughly human one both accepting and defiant as it teeters on the cusp of change. At least that's what I thought when I took the photographs. When I flip through the pages of the book now, or prepare photographs to hang at the Fototeca de Cuba Museum in Havana, there are moments when I'm surprised to find definite points -- political or otherwise -- rising up from my overarching narrative. The images are mine, the impressions mine, but the meaning belongs to the subjects and their country and no one else. And with this dichotomy in mind, it's only fitting that these definitions and serendipitous points rise from a place that most Americans -- most Cubans, for that matter -- will never get a chance to see: a talented heart beneath the ribs of a misrepresented society.
A diamond in the rough making the best of its burial.
A pearl polished by political sands.
And, I'm coming to see, that at a certain point the analogies do more harm than good.
Cuba is just Cuba.
And leaving, for me, felt a lot like arriving -- that is, it had me doubting my destination once again.
Despite what our leaders would like us to think, there are parts of Cuba and clusters of its people that bursts with joy, with creativity, with hope -- it all just happens to be filtered through a lens through which some Americans (and some of their leaders) would prefer not to peer.
Are we being lied to? Not exactly...
We're just not being told the truth.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more