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  • Treces

    Three things about this photograph:

    1. It took nearly three years to make.

    2. It required three trips to Cuba.

    3. Three women are responsible for 1 and 2.

    25 March, 2013: Late afternoon, I am wandering around a neighborhood south of Plaza Vieja occupied by ordinary Cubans, when I encounter this mature tree growing out and up the side of a building. I thank the force that guided me here, and begin setting up my camera and composing a picture. As I work, I notice in my peripheral vision three women walking down the street. They are intrigued by my old-fashioned-looking camera and come over to ask about it. As we talk I learn they are French, and when they discover that I am from the United States they want to know how I am able to travel in Cuba. After I explain my camera and legal status to them, they go on their way and I go about making my picture.

    When I return home and develop my film, I am greatly disappointed to see that both of the negatives of the scene are fatally underexposed. This was going to be one of the best pictures from the trip, and was destined to occupy a prominent place in the portfolio I was planning. Since I had followed the routine that I always do to avoid such mistakes, I have no choice but to blame the three women who disturbed my concentration.

    13 December, 2014: To avoid distraction I get up early and return to find the tree and building intact and identical to the way it had been 21 months earlier. I make essentially the same composition, without interruption this time, and leave satisfied that I have my picture.

    When the lights go on and I inspect the film later in my Virginia darkroom, I discover that I have made exactly the same mistake again! I almost never calculate exposures incorrectly, and to do it twice to a picture that I cannot conveniently reshoot; one that was going to be good? Unforgivable! And the worst thing is that this time there were no French people around to blame!

    9 December, 2015: Early morning again. I check, double-check, triple-check my light meter, then give the scene some extra seconds with the shutter open, just to make sure.

    January 2, 2016. While watching the image from a (this time) well-exposed negative come up in the developer, I think about how this scene even came to be. The seed from which the tree sprouted must have landed on the wall decades ago, perhaps during the time of the revolution in 1959. It was close enough to the sidewalk that, as it took root and began to grow, people had to notice it. Why did no one simply reach out and pull it from the wall? As it grew larger and began to damage the wall itself, why did not the occupants of the building remove it before the damage became worse? And as it grew tall enough so that its branches and leaves spread out over the roof, why did no one think that the next hurricane to cross the island was likely to use it as a lever to throw down the wall and perhaps collapse the entire building?

    Steve Anchell says that one aspect of the authoritarian form of government in Cuba is that it has conditioned people not to think for themselves. They have learned through experience to do exactly what they are told to do; no more, no less. Varying from the norm may result in unpleasant reactions from those in power. Perhaps this photograph is a metaphor for what has happened to the country and to its people as a result of that revolution.

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