Bosque de La Habana

The Bosque de La Habana tells you something about the city. A patch of shady woodland along the banks of the Rio Almedares, it is crossed at one end by a picturesque stone bridge. Drawn by the bridge, and the shade, and the river below, the open Chevies and Buicks in their bright colours gather, with their cargoes of tourists.

But the bridge is crumbling, the grotto is littered, the stream a stinking grey intestine. The drivers pull in, nonetheless, and the assembly of vintage automobiles, and the luxuriant foliage, and the scattered light filtering through the leaves and branches, make it all seem romantic. But you can’t help wondering – at the neglect, at the lack of maintenance, the pollution, the seeming absence of initiative to fix the place up and – at the same time – the easy charm and resilience.

Life goes on, it seems, despite tourists and communism, and the old cars retain their air of romance, even if they are markers of isolation and impoverishment rather than celebrations of heritage.


Sitting in Cape Town, thinking of Havana

So I have come to the end of a week in Cape Town – a round of project inception meetings with officials and academics, dinners out with my 85 year old mother or quiet evenings at home watching The Crown on Netflix, calls on FaceTime to my wife in Toronto, and – stealing a few moments here and there – working on my photos from Havana.

And so it is, I guess, that we inhabit multiple places, multiple eras. Echoes of ‘radical economic transformation,’ from this week’s State of the Nation address, provide a ghostly, sardonic music to accompany the photos – if you want radical economic transformation, try Cuba.

Yet these scenes, and the people in them, ask you to relate, not comment: other people, getting on with their lives, on their own special island.

Habana Vieja: street scenes

There is more to Havana than just Habana Vieja: and there are a lot more images to process and – geez, if I were more pretentious than I like to think I am – ‘curate.’

But before I move on – to art deco suburban architecture, 50s cars and cinemas, the melancholy drama of the Malecon – there is (for now, anyway) a final set of images of the old town to be posted.

As with the last post, I’ve done these in colour: much as I love black and white, the way it reveals, caresses, form and texture, you just have to show the leprous bloom, the fatal opulence of Habana Vieja, in colour.


Habana Vieja: two murals

Cuba’s history, of course – by which I mean only its modern history, which we can date back to the first Spanish warships, sailing off the island in the late 1400s – long predates the Revolution.

As Richard Gott explains, in his dry but absorbing Cuba, A New History (published in 2004) there has always been trouble: privateers, conquistadores, slavery, wars and coups, poverty and excess, rebellions and the mafia pock-mark the narrative like bullet-holes in a wall.

Visiting Havana, in this sense, means descending into an archeological dig. At the surface is the Revolution, with its heroic moment, followed by scars and decay: below it there are layers upon layers. Hard-edged or crumbling, you see this most immediately in the architecture. You see it also in the bodies – dark, light, African, European – of the Cuban people, and in glimpses of the culture. The music, obviously, but the art also, and – if we had stayed longer, and if we understood the language – many other manifestations.

These two murals, found in the streets of Habana Vieja – the Old City – give you the idea. The one, with its bold figures, worn but strong, offers a window into Cuba’s history of slavery and its African population; the other, with a hooded woman, her breasts two snaggle-toothed fish, speaks to darker perceptions and other beliefs.

Neither, let it be said, says anything of Revolution.

Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana

Nuevo Vedado, Havana. It is New Year’s Day, 2017. We drift towards wakefulness, in the blue room at our casa particular or homestay, on a raft of sound. The ring of a bucket as it’s set down on concrete. A man’s voice, and a woman’s, greeting the new year in Spanish. Water splashing, a dog barking. The rumble of a truck or car in the street outside. Screech of a parakeet. The noises are right inside here, in the room, amplified.

We were greeted on Saturday, on the eve of the new year, at Havana’s Jose Marti Habana airport, by Luise and Patricia. We have no Spanish, but Patricia speaks English; she translates for her husband. Soon Patricia and Rob are chatting away like sisters. We are from Toronto, Rob says, she has been here before, but a long time ago. She expects things have changed quite a lot since then. This is her husband’s first visit.

I am originally from South Africa, I add, my contribution to the conversation. Luise breaks into a broad grin. He was in Angola, he says. During the war.

Luise was an engineer his wife adds, quickly: meaning, he wasn’t involved in the fighting. Glen didn’t serve in the South African army, either, Rob says. He was against apartheid. Luise and I smile at each other: we are friends, we are saying, without speaking. But who would have thought, that Luise and I would have a connection, through Cuba’s support for the MPLA, against South Africa, in Angola’s war of liberation?

This is but the first of many moments where I have to pause to think, to try to make sense of where we are, what we are seeing. With this in mind, I begin this little photo essay on our trip to Havana, not chronologically, but thematically, politically, with images of the Plaza de la Revolucion, not far from the casa particular of Luise and Patricia.

The plaza is at once banal and fascinating, grandiose and crumbling. What strikes me more than anything is that it is a monument to old men, by old men, forever reliving a moment of youthful glory, while the present flows by, heedless, in the stares of tourists.

From Havana, with astonishment

Havana is like no other place I have been to, too layered, complex, brave, catastrophic – too much human experience compacted into one decaying, living, breathing city – to write about or photograph easily. And now that we are back in safe, sane, organized, clean Toronto, we are back also in the mode of ‘planification’  – preparing for tomorrow’s farewell party, preparing for my departure for South Africa on Wednesday – and in a place where meditation, thought, writing, and the making of images – not to mention figuring out what to even think about an astonishing city – must await a quieter time and another day.

Which is a long, roundabout way of saying, we are back, we are fine, we had an amazing time – and there will be photos and commentary to follow.

In the meanwhile, just one – fairly benign – image as a teaser: the famous Malacon.

The Malacon, Havana.jpg

Madrid Segue

The documentary series on Netflix, The Story of Cuba Libre, tells the deeply engrossing story of Cuba’s long struggle for freedom, first against the Spanish, then the Mafia, the Americans and their own dictators. Along with our guidebooks, our investigations into cigar purchases, talk of rum and mojitos, music and sightseeing, Rob and I have been watching the series as part of our homework.

One of the things borne forcefully home in the early episodes, of course, is the painful impact of Spanish colonialism on Cuba’s people and history. It was only a few short weeks ago, after all, that I was in Madrid, wandering the narrow streets of the old town and marvelling at the vast white monolith of the Royal Palace. Watching the documentary, it is only too easy to see where all that fabulous wealth came from.

One of the images from that trip to Madrid is this photograph of a group of people, tourists presumably, gliding down a lane on their Segways. To my eye at least, there is something oddly out of place, almost darkly comic, about the picture, and so, if you’ll pardon the visual and verbal pun, I offer it also as a segue from Madrid to Havana.

We leave first thing on Saturday.


Thinking of Havana

A good deal of what we loosely think of as ‘travel photography’ is of the Facebook-posting or family album variety – ‘this is where we went, this is what we did, this is who we were with.’ It’s straightforward, innocuous, innocent even: ‘my hols’ as a diary in pictures or travel journal.

Then there is ‘travel’ as genre, an altogether more complex, and comprised (compromising?) form of photographic endeavour. Its most familiar format is the travel magazine or travel article, and its premise is promotion – promotion of destinations, scenes, peoples, cultures. Its intent is to impress, to amaze, to shock or surprise, and ultimately to sell, in the many different senses of ‘selling.’ Its stock in trade is ‘the other,’ as in ‘look how different/fabulous/wonderful/weird/exotic’ this is.

And then, perhaps, at the opposite end of the scale to the Facebook selfie, and standing outside of travel as genre, there are the images taken by the thoughtful photographer who happens to be travelling, who finds himself (or herself) in locations that are outside of his usual experience, but who remains, primarily, a photographer – an observer and image maker. The premise here is not promotion but photography; its focus is the image, not the other.

How to tell the two apart – the travel genre from the work of the traveling photographer – is of course the question, one which has vexed me much as I think about how to approach the complex subject of photographing Havana. For Rob and I have booked ourselves a five day holiday in Cuba, flying out from a wintry Toronto on the last day of the old year, and waking up in Havana on the first day of the new. Havana has been on our bucket-list for ages, and with our move back to South Africa now imminent, this seemed the time to do it. Who knew, when we booked, that we would be arriving soon after the death of Fidel Castro, in a time (one imagines) of questioning and ferment, however subdued things might seem to be on the surface.

How to disentangle oneself from the familiar tropes – Havana as time-capsule, political drama, history-in-amber – and enter with some openness and integrity into so different a milieu and experience will be a question for both of us, just as visitors and observers. How to make images that are honest, alongside the inevitable album variety, that say something as images, and speak to what is seen and experienced, will be even more of a challenge. After all, how many images of Havana are branded already into our collective consciousness?