Cuba is a hard place to capture: in words, in art, and in photographs. As a student studying at la Universidad de la Habana for four months, I know from experience. When I came back, nobody seemed to understand or respond to my own photographs except for the people who lived with me. I think they expected the images we usually get: old cars in front of formerly beautiful but now falling down buildings, clothes hanging from balconies and children playing shirtless and barefoot in the streets. I have all of those types of pictures from my first week in the city and honestly, I can’t even look at them because, to me, Cuba is so much more.
Upon returning to the states, I’ve looked for a book or collection of photographs that I feel accurately captures the island I grew to know and love. Most of what I found seemed to be more of the same: old cars, old buildings, and either a superficially brightness or an equally superficial dim lack of hope. The only photos that really seemed to speak to me were the ones by Alberto Korda, Cuban photographer of the Cuban Revolution and post-Revolutionary government. But those weren’t recent and I wanted something closer to my own experience.
Out of sheer curiosity, I looked through every book the ICP Library had on Cuba. All of them. I found one that, while not perfect, is by far the closest I’ve seen to an accurate representation of Cuba (I actually remember seeing it once in a tourist trap outside of la Habana but hadn’t given it a closer look for fear of what I’d find). Cuba on the Verge has something most books on Cuba completely miss: the perspective of people who live there rather than people who just visit. The essay and corresponding photographs in “Sexual Healing: The Mysticism of the Flesh,” for example is brilliantly simple. Told and photographed by two Cubans, the perspective is not the flashy, mysterious look of an outsider to a ‘dangerously erotic society,’ but a truthful image of a common part of Cuban life. “From Ruins to Restoration” presents how those old, beautiful buildings of the past aren’t all just being left to rot; people are trying to restore them slowly but surely, or at the least keep the best ones from degrading further. There is a strong sense of resilience to this book, something very important on a small island with few resources but sugar, salt, tobacco, and rum. The feeling of a country of people living their lives despite certain hardships and still enjoying themselves is something often missing in the accounts we get in the states. Cuba on the Verge, while over 7 years old now, is still a more up-to-date and intimate portrayal than I’ve seen. Things are changing quickly these days in Cuba, with the increase in private business and decrease in government jobs, and are likely to change more in the years to come as American- Cuban relations progress. Cuba on the Verge might be the only accurate representation we will have from this time period.
[Meaghan G. Morgan-Puglisi, ICP Library Intern]