Perdido is a Spanish adjective meaning “lost.” Which is what I am when I find this picture. Not lost in the forest with no hope of rescue lost, but walking down a street I've never been on before and not sure where I'm going lost. The kind that consulting the map in my backpack or hailing a taxi for a ride back to Habana Vieja will quickly make me not lost. But where is the adventure in that? When lost I sometimes find a picture that I like.
We had traveled to a gallery in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana to look at an exhibit of photographs by Chino Arcos, one of the Cuban photographers with whom we interact there. Afterwards small groups form to go shooting, but I know there are some art deco buildings near here, and decide to go off on my own in search of one to photograph. I apparently wander the wrong direction because I see no sign of my quarry, and instead find myself walking down a wide boulevard and around a monument in the middle of a traffic circle. On the other side my eye is drawn to a grove of mature banyan trees with their strange intertwined trunks and tendrils hanging from their branches. Behind the grove is a sandstone ledge that I suppose was exposed when the street was built, and on which someone has carved a mural featuring “Indians” that I take to be representations of the original residents of the island. I am immediately interested and decide to photograph one of the figures.
The place we now call Cuba had been inhabited by the Arawak people for thousands of years when Christopher Columbus “discovered” it in 1492. It is worth noting that Columbus was lost at the time,believing as he did that he had achieved his stated mission of finding a westward passage to the Indian Ocean. He therefore called the people that he encountered “Indians;” by the time his little mistake was realized, the mis-appellation of all of the first inhabitants of the Americas had stuck. Columbus claimed the land for the Queen of Spain for whom he was working at the time, Spain established a colony there, realized that it was perfect for growing sugar cane, and decided the Arawaks should serve “their” new monarch by working on the plantations. Within a few decades the Arawaks had all but disappeared due to mistreatment and exposure to European diseases such as Smallpox, to which they had no resistance.
The sun has just worked its way around the ledge and is raking across the surface, creating harsh highlights on one side that descend into deep shadows on the other. Conventional wisdom would be to reduce this contrast during development, or else do significant dodging and burning at the printing stage to make a more balanced picture. But as I work on the composition I wonder about the motivation of the artist who carved the mural, and I am reminded of Minor White's admonition to “not only photograph things for what they are, but for what else they are.” The figure has outstretched arms, is he welcoming some unknown person? He has turned from a place of great brightness into one of darkness, which could represent movement into an unseen, dangerous place. The tendrils of the Banyan tree suggest the imprisonment that awaits him.
It is not until I am nearly finished printing the photograph in the darkroom that I notice the cross carved into the darkness that the figure faces. I consider how often man has used, and continues to use to this day, religion to justify cruelty to other people, completing my metaphor.