The pictures tell the story in Cuba: Paradise Lost in Nostalgia. And like in a good painting, the more you look, the more you see. Colors practically explode – red, blue, green, yellow. There is exuberance – a woman in a flaring red dress dancing with men in the street under a glaringly bright blue sky; defiant teenagers clambering through a green doorway – and decay; a tattered flag, a wistful boy peering through a makeshift barricade. Striking, and often beautiful, as the images are, with their bright colors, their luminous light, the luxurious texture of aging stone and splintering wood, they are permeated with a sense of tension. No one and nothing is at ease here.
This vital, unsettling show is the latest chapter of photojournalist and cultural activist Carl Juste’s multi-year project Havana, Haiti: Two Cultures, One Community. A longtime Miami Herald photographer raised in Miami’s, and his own, Haitian community, Juste has bone deep instincts for how community and culture are expressed in visual storytelling. Last March he took a small group of photographers to Havana to enrich and update the Cuba section of Havana, Haiti, which is funded by the Knight Foundation and the Green Family Foundation. All are superbly accomplished photographers with decades of experience and multiple Pulitzers among them, several of them Juste’s former Herald colleagues. He turned them loose in Havana for five days. Among other things, the result shows what can happen when you have confidence in people’s talent and ability to discover a story.
“We wanted to keep it open,” Juste said one recent morning at the Iris Photo Collective space near the Little Haiti Cultural Center complex. “I didn’t want to prejudice or put my thumb on the scale. I trust these journalists and their instincts. I trusted that collectively we would come to a singular voice.” Carol Guzy, a Washington Post photographer who’s won four Pulitzers, focused on a series on a woman caring for her elderly disabled mother. But most of the group roamed Havana, doing what photojournalists do. “We’re street shooters,” says Juste. “We photograph what catches our eyes, the spirit of a city. We’re constantly having a dialogue between the landscape and our impressions of what Cuba is.”
Two themes emerged once Juste got back and went through the pictures. One is purely visual (a natural for photographers who’ve been reacting to what they see all their lives.) It’s the startling way that colors – a shiny red antique car, a bright blue door – pop against Havana’s aging cityscape, with its dull grey brown shades of grumbling stone and decaying wood, devoid of the ubiquitous advertising that clutters American cities. “Color in Cuba is like an exclamation point,” says Juste. “It hits you every time you walk down the street, 110 mph, stops you in your tracks.”
The other, more profound theme came to Juste from his own shot of a gleaming white American cruise ship, prominently labeled “Paradise,” emerging into Havana Bay, with the centuries old Morro Castle, a colonial fortress and brutal Revolutionary-era prison, looming behind it, while a mix of new and old cars streams by on the Malecon below.
“I kept looking at it,” Juste says. “It was so weird, this ship coming out of a place stuck in time. That’s when I got the title. Then I went back and started seeing this idea over and over again.”
That idea is the tension between Cuba’s dilapidated, strained present and its storied, contradictory past, and the way it uses emblems and images of that past, whether antique American cars or photos of Revolutionary figures, to appeal to the tourists who’ve become its economic lifeblood. And to bolster the identity and pride of a culture that’s increasingly balanced on an unpredictable knife edge between political rhetoric, hazy cultural cliché, and the harsh reality of survival and intrusive capitalism.
“What’s interesting about nostalgia is it’s always positive,” says Juste. “People hold onto the better moments, rather than the bitter. I was curious about how image serves as memory. And how there’s a parallel function for both images and memory, they’re one and the same. The images stick around forever. They become part of the larger conversation about the identity of Cuba here and abroad. How do we engage memory so it serves a function? Here in Miami it allows the embargo to stay in place. There the memory lets people go back in time. There’s nothing sexy about poverty. But if you can sell [memories] to people who don’t know any better, then you have a strategy.”
Irony pervades many of these pictures. In Juste’s shot of a bar, a female tourist dances with a Cuban musician, his face cloaked by sunglasses. On the wall, old signs for Coke, Smith & Wesson, Esso motor oil – American corporations from a 50’s era pre-Revolutionary Cuba -mix with photos of Fidel Castro with Ernest Hemingway, Che Guevara chomping a cigar. In a striking panoramic shot by C.W. Griffin, the famous Hotel Nacional towers on a rock outcropping, a lone red antique car on the street below, echoed by the red of a triangular “Cuba” sign pointing towards the hotel, while a billboard for an airline peeks out on the edge, its artificial blue sky far brighter than the ominous grey clouds. Your eye ricochets between the colors, between the contrast between the heavy stone of cliff and hotel and the suddenly halted motion of car and plane.
Others are more poignant. Look closely at Marice Cohn Band’s shot of a Cuban flag, and you’ll see its seemingly careful drapery is a result of it’s barely hanging by a strip of fabric, threads dangling from the bar that once held it level and secure. In another Cohn Band picture, a frowning woman in white turban and dress shelters herself from the rain with an umbrella covered with reproductions of Victor Manuel’s famous painting La Gitana Tropical (Tropical Gypsy), a cliché exotic portrait of the real woman underneath.
Jeffrey Salter captures an antique doorway painted that brilliant Cuban blue, where a near-naked little boy peers out from the black interior through a rough wood gate, in dark, poignant contrast to the bright surface opening. Salter also took the stunning portrait of a man in an immaculately pressed vintage style white pants, vest, tie, and gleaming spectator shoes, the creases in his pants as sharp as the tension in his watchful face, his warily pulled back posture, a blue cloth in his hand the lone pop of color.
“Me and Salter both saw him,” Juste says. But ever competitive, Salter shot first. “Look at him – he has this swagger,” Juste says. “Look at that style man!”
Slick and polished against all odds, his back against an ancient wall, watching to see what we think of him.
Listen to Carl Juste talk about the Havana, Haiti project on WNYC here.