When I first began photographing in Cuba five years ago, I had a plan. I was going to use all of the film that I brought to photograph the buildings, vehicles, and other creations of man that had been left to their own devices in a country that lacked the resources it needed to maintain them. It seemed like a good plan, but as Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth Von Moltke said, "no operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy.” The enemy, in my case, was reality. The first photograph that I made portrayed exactly what I thought exemplified Cuba: a building that was slowly but inexorably being reclaimed by the environment due to the inability of its owners to obtain the materials required to keep them up.
But about ten minutes later and three blocks from where I made that first exposure, reality demolished my plan as surely as any wrecking ball. I found another building that was not yielding to entropy, but was existing quite nicely, thank you, due to the persistence of its owner, a man named Nivaldo. I felt called to document this other side of Cuba, one that survives, and even prospers, despite a government that centrally plans and controls nearly everything, the sudden withdrawal of support from a patron state (the former USSR), and the embargo imposed by the USA.
When, many years ago, I decided to make the exploration of entropy a long-term photographic project, I resolved that the influence of man would only be implied, and not depicted, in my pictures. But that day I came to understand that Nivaldo was the difference between a shining, well-preserved example of Spanish Colonial architecture, and one whose glory had long since faded, its balustrade half gone, its stained glass windows broken, its peeling shutters hiding an even greater deterioration within its crumbling walls. Nivaldo was part of the story these two photographs told, and he needed to be included along with his house.
Similarly, I felt compelled to ask a taxista I met to pose with his wonderfully-maintained 1935 Ford, in stark counterpoint to a now nameless car seemingly abandoned on Brasil Street. Last year I spent an entire day walking the streets of Santiago de Cuba with nothing more than a handheld camera and a pocketful of film, interacting with and photographing the people of Cuba. After four trips to the island I think I finally understand what my friend Steve Anchell has been saying all these years: that it is not Cuba that keeps drawing him back, but the Cuban people.
Through his company, Anchell Workshops, Steve has been guiding people interested in learning about and photographing Cuba and Cubans for most of this century. This year I was honored when he asked me to assist him with two Havana Street Photography workshops. I felt that there was little new for me to say about entropy, buildings losing their battle with gravity, classic US and Russian automobiles, or “the land that time has forgotten,” to quote currently popular travel websites. So, with no small amount of trepidation, I left my precious Linhof 4x5” camera, heavy tripod, and bulky film holders at home, and instead took a more mobile and and faster medium format rig. I wanted to use the workshops to build upon the work that I started in 2016, engaging with and learning a bit about my subjects, then photographing them in a way that depicted their unique surroundings.
The workshops began in Plaza Catedral, one of the four important plazas in Habana Vieja, the original and oldest part of the city. Steve assigned the participants to work on “Street Portraiture,” which he describes as “engaging the subject through conversation, eye contact, or other interactions, trying to capture on film the essence as well as the likeness of the person.”
As I walked around the plaza, I noticed a painter who had set up his easel and was working on a composition of the cathedral on the opposite side. I looked over his shoulder, paid him a compliment, then asked if I could make his portrait. He agreed, and went back to his painting while I made several photographs. This was the first roll of film that I exposed on this trip, and the first to be developed when I returned home. I like the result: it is clear who he is and what he is doing, and I particularly enjoy his furrowed brow as he intensely concentrates on his art. A good start, I think, and I look forward to finding some other satisfying pictures as I develop and print the rest of my film.