Cuba may be just 90 miles from the United States, but life in the small, Communist nation is worlds away from that in its close neighbor. This summer, a group of students traveled there through a Dialogues of Civilizations program focusing on photography.
The 23 students, led by digital art and photography lecturer Andrea Raynor and photography lecturer Luis Brens, took classes three days a week while traveling the country to document life in his or her own way.
“We weren’t interested in having everybody get off the bus and take the same pictures,” Raynor said. “We were like, ‘Go! See you at dinner.’”
Students had nearly unfettered access to a nation that has had almost no American influence since the Cold War-era embargo began, a divide that is only now just starting to be bridged.
“So much of Cuban life happens out on the street, be it a soccer game or a music festival or just neighbors talking to one another at the end of the day,” Brens said. “There was very little rejection toward our students, which was great — our students could walk down the street and photograph whatever they wanted.”
Each student developed a portfolio of photos in Cuba, and we asked three to share the story behind their favorite shots. To see work by every student who traveled to Cuba through the Dialogue, visit www.neutocuba.com.
Cuba is so visually beautiful that it’s really hard to focus on what to point a camera at. However, one thing that stuck out for me almost immediately was the active Cuban lifestyle (I found out much later that the Cuban constitution, in fact, promotes sport as “integral development of citizens”). Every day after work or school, fields, courts, streets and even empty swimming pools sprang to life with pickup games. Because they can be played most anywhere and with minimal equipment, soccer and baseball games were everywhere.
This particular photo was taken at one of the crumbling public athletic facilities right by El Malecon, the seawall in Havana. The pickup game was one of six or seven going on at the facility, one that featured two emptied swimming pools, a crumbling soccer stadium, a torn-up grass field, and a converted basketball arena in addition to the outdoor basketball court in this photo. While it seems sad that all these once-grandiose facilities have fallen into disrepair, the real story to me is that the Cuban people still use every single one of them, even if it might not be for their intended purposes. Every space is utilized. When I stumbled upon this game as the sun dipped low and the shadows lengthened, I knew that I wanted people to see what I was seeing. The court, the players, the grafitti, the rubber ball, the muggy heat at the end of a long day, all of it. For me, this photo represents a big part of my Cuba experience, one I’ll never forget.
In Cuba, relationships are always on display: everything from times of tender intimacy to scathing arguments are played out in the public eye. The primary reason for this is the housing crisis in Havana that means living with several members of extended family, with no room for privacy, so everything must take place elsewhere. After my first week, capturing moments within these romantic relationships became the focus of my documentary project. I spent a great deal of time just sitting and waiting for these interactions to take place. For this shot I was looking out of the window of my hotel room at the bus stop across the street when I spotted this young couple in the midst of a heated discussion, full of hand gestures and hushed shouting. I had time to compose this image with the green lamppost and the set of stairs, just how I liked it. Just after I got the shot the bus pulled up and they linked hands and ran to catch it.
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Rafael Feliciano Cumbas, senior, sociology and American Sign Language combined major
I was walking down a street from an orchid orchard when I saw this man selling mamays. In Havana, I was accustomed to seeing people selling fruits in large crowds, but in the little country town of Soroa this fruit seller was alone. Since he gave me permission to photograph him, I got real close to take photos. I noticed the particular colors of the wheelbarrow and the contrast with the mamays — both the tools of his job. I took photos until he has bored looking at the camera and his attention focused elsewhere. This was the last of the photos I took and the one where he is most comfortable.