A Photographer’s Reflection
’One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.’ Henry Miller
The wonderful light which creates long sculptural shadows; the deep blue skies decorated with cumuli; vibrantly-coloured, and picturesquely decaying, Spanish colonial and art deco architecture; the 1950s cars, many immaculately and ingeniously maintained; the stunning landscapes of the Vinales Valley - but most of all the hospitable people and their culture, isolated from many globalising influences – make Cuba a photographer’s paradise.
Sugar Cane Cutter, near Santa Clara
There is a picture around every corner – a barber’s shop in ‘old’ Havana; the sea breaking over the Malecon; a tobacco farmer with his oxen and family in the San Carlos valley; a disused sugar mill and it’s decaying locomotives outside Cienfuegos; the evocative steam train trip from Trinidad; charismatic sugar cane cutters at work on the road to Santa Clara; and the portraits of so many wonderful faces.
For most of our 15 day trip we stayed in homestays (or casas) so we were able to get a real feel for the ‘street-life’ – with games of dominoes, marbles and baseball ; remarkable graffiti; bicycle taxis and horse-drawn buses plying their trade; men working on their Plymouths and Buicks and women talking to each other from their balconies or hauling food or furniture up to the fourth floor on improvised pulleys, Music – like Che’s image - is everywhere, of all varieties and often of stunning quality. There’s plenty of museums – some, like the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, are outstanding – better than MOMA in my view - others are quirky and eccentric.
Cuba is unique - a closed society devoid of many of the things we have come to see as a blight – the fast food chains, cynical advertising, cloned high streets, rampant consumerism, the sheer complexity of life. Brought up with hoards of other post-war children in working class ‘back-to-back’ housing and car-less streets as football pitches (and yes, jumpers for goalposts), our visit elicited a real sense of loss for the social solidarity and shared community life where everyone was an uncle or aunty.
Of course, Cuba is no actual paradise. There is a level of material security and the people appear healthy, cheerful and well-clothed - signs of desperate poverty are rare . It seems that there is little racial discrimination in a society where skin colour ranges from pure Spanish white to former slave ebony – and all shades in between. Family ties are strong. There is an excellent education system totally free through to university level and ‘full’ employment (which often means over-manning on a comical scale). The third of Americans without adequate health care can only dream of the security all Cubans enjoy. Since my last visit in 2007, public transport in Havana has been transformed by a new fleet of buses – largely from China.
However, wages are low - the equivalent of about £15 a month - and there are significant shortages of basics – exacerbated by the US trade embargo. There is a flourishing black market which tourism undoubtedly fuels and the ‘system’ can be manipulated if you have ‘connections’. Tourism is also undermining the equality of conditions – access to tourists means substantial extra income. In the country areas we visited, the conditions of life and methods of farming were medieval and the extent of the deterioration in the housing and streets of central Havana is staggering.
Among the well-educated and the creative community, one senses a deep melancholy at the lack of freedom and scope for individuality. Civil rights are restricted and Cuba is run by an authoritarian, highly centralised bureaucratic political system – based on an intrusive ‘surveillance’. Revolutionary slogans are pasted on walls and billboards and many of these are hand-painted – perhaps the product of the ubiquitous ‘Comites de Defensa de la Revolucion’ - there’s one in every block. There is no civic society – no associations or organisations other than ‘the state’. Ironically and tragically, there is no grass-roots ‘politics’ in Cuba – the ‘revolution’ is frozen in time, symbolised by the preserved glamour of a long dead hero.
Our visit stimulated much reflection and discussion – Cuba reminds us of what we have lost in our ‘advanced’ societies and economies, but it also puts in perspective the many precious fundamentals of our society that we are prone to take for granted.
Ian Wright www.ianwrighttravel.co.uk is a UK-based professional photographer and former teacher of Politics and Government. He led a special Intrepid Tour, Cuba ‘Through the Lens’, February 8th-22nd 2009. He will be leading Intrepid photographic tours to Morocco in September 2009
Cienfuegos, above and social comment, below.