Why Cuba? / by Sara Louise Petty

I had wanted to visit Cuba for some time. I concentrate primarily on street photography and portraiture - I knew there would be a lot of great candid photographs to be had in Cuba. I was in the stages of planning a trip when I heard about the free Rolling Stones concert in Havana. I felt this would be a once in a lifetime trip, and was excited to witness the Cuban people experience their first Rolling Stones concert! It symbolized many things, but mostly it was the feeling of opening a huge door towards freedom to the outside world. 

I arrived in Cuba just as President Obama had left. Although Fidel Castro published a negative toned article (published whilst I was there) in the Cuban newspaper Granma regarding Obama's visit, this was not the sentiment of the Cuban people. Wherever I traveled within the island, the people were discussing Obama's visit with excitement and hope. There were news cuttings about it pinned to bulletin boards, it was a positive and exciting experience for the Cuban people and there was an overwhelming sense of hope for normalized relations, which would bring new tourism and business opportunities for Cubans and their families. 

Aside from the concert, my main focus of the trip was to document the people of Cuba as they are now, living on an island on the brink of change. Knowing that many a photographer had documented the worn down destructed houses, the 50's cars and old Habana, etc I wanted to really hone in on the people. I also wanted to find interesting scenarios and locations that were not overly exposed. I decided to focus on Alamar, a series of communist looking structures on the outskirts of Havana and the people who live there. I focused on the children, playgrounds and the 'youth centre' where the young people of the housing structures congregate to date, socialize and use the wifi. (Wifi in Cuba is hard to find, and people must pay as they go, using cards)

In addition to Alamar - I spent a lot of time in Centro Habana, where I found it was more authentic and certainly a true taste of how the people of Cuba really live. 

I had heard of the National Art Schools, through my architect boyfriend at the time John Wender, which are now named the Instituto Superior de Arts (ISA), and wanted to visit these interesting structures from an architectural standpoint. The schools were founded by Fidel Castro & Che Guevara in 1961 in the early years after the revolution, and lay unfinished and abandoned as two of the three main architects fell out of favor with the government over arguments the structures were not compatible with the revolution. These structures were organic, arched, curved and (according to the guard who has worked on the property for over 30 years) were conceived and inspired by the womanly body with curves, domes and tunnels. The structures are in complete stark contrast to the blockish and conformed shapes of other structures built around that time, such as the monotonous square buildings of Alamar. The National Art Schools lay unfinished for many years but are now recognized as national monuments. During the 70's they became the ISA and underwent rehabilitation, becoming a functioning art school with notable faculty such as the sculptor José Villa Soberón.

I wanted to visit, photograph and observe people in their natural environment, so along with the ISA I decided to visit a local boxing ring in Havana. One of the vendors who sold the most delicious cold, fresh coconuts knew of a retired boxer who had won several titles who frequented a local ring. He introduced us and he took me to the ring. There I found local boxers, both male and female, both training and socializing. I was very interested in the female boxers in particular. 

When people think of Cuba, they have a vision of old 50's cars (in Cuba referred to as 'almendrones'), glistening beaches, a hot climate, the home of Ernest Hemingway, beautiful people and fun salsa dancing. Of course they know of the embargo and how difficult is seems to visit, but until you are actually in Cuba, and away from the touristic hot spots you can't appreciate just how tremendous the effects of the embargo, collapse of the Soviet Union and loss of USSR financial support were for the Cuban people. The island was plunged into economic hardship and isolation.  I witnessed much poverty, worn down crumbling houses, rationed food, lines around the block for potatoes (on the day that potatoes are freely available), food markets with barren shelves, with food stuffs reminiscent of 1940's wartime such as powdered milk and canned meats. Here you do not see the glossy 50's cars or the pastel colored buildings, you see the 1980's russian cars such as the VAZ, falling apart, and you see meat stores filled with flies. You see how incredibly stifled the Cuban people have been, and how resourceful they are given the fact they have been denied so much by their communist government. You see an incredible amount of hope, faith and anticipation for the prospects of the future. The Cuban people are hard workers, and are eager to work and prosper. This is an exciting time for Cuba, a country on the threshold of monumental change. 


Sara Louise Petty

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