As last century’s photographs of war and revolution disappear in a silver river of celluloid, there’s one place on Earth peddling pictures as if the action just crystallised last week. In Havana, Cuba, not only are visitors greeted with images of Fidel Castro’s 1959 socialist revolution as if the victory cry was hollered only yesterday, but with insider access, travellers can now meet the front-line photographers who captured Fidel’s triumphant ragtag rebellion.
That access comes via a three-day tour which, by taking in examples of propagandist and political photography, provides a backstage pass to a historic event that rocked the mid-20th century. The bonus is a chance to meet some of the city’s contemporary photographers in their Havana home studios.
As I bounced out of Havana’s airport in a wine-red Fifties Chevy towards downtown, I saw billboards of bold revolution propaganda, and found myself staring at the face of Che Guevara looking out at all those driving by. Che’s fixed gaze – aka Heroic Guerrilla – the inspiration of a million copies on T-shirts and posters around the globe, and taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda at a 1960 funeral, is hailed as the most reproduced image in the world. In a film about Korda, Kordavision, Fidel Castro regroups with Cuban snappers who captured his movement’s post-1959 victory and tells them: “Without your photos we wouldn’t even exist.”
Castro’s admission on film of the leverage the printed picture gave to Cuba’s new rebel leaders, at a time when more than half of the Caribbean island was illiterate and there was little TV, is powerful. It’s something Cuba’s government has continued, pinning up images and slogans across boards and walls, despite the world being saturated by 24-hour TV news and the internet (only 50 per cent of Cuba’s population has access to the net)
So important was the shoring up of Castro’s story that he returned to his rebel camp in 1962 – with Korda – to restage battle poses. One of Korda’s images, depicting Castro posing in combat gear, was the dominant portrait of him in media and public spaces after his death in late 2016.
My guide for this epic propaganda tour about Cuba’s good-looking rebels decides that Korda, image-maker in chief, who died in 2001, should be our first stop. Korda’s daughter, Diana Díaz, greets us at her home, where she curates her father’s estate, filled with his images of Castro and Guevara. Korda was a pill-seller-turned-fashion-snapper before becoming Fidel’s unofficial photographer. He understood the power of an alluring image, says Díaz, who explains that her father used all the techniques for fashion and photography and just changed the subject.
“My father and Castro were like two friends,” she continues. “There was no one else who had that closeness and confidence with Castro. They were an artist and a politician, both were young and charismatic.”
Korda’s iconic image of Guevara was overlooked for publication in Cuban newspaper Revolución in favour of one of Castro; its first release was as an ad for a Guevara TV interview in 1961, but it didn’t gain cult status until after his assassination in 1967.
When he was 18, New York-born Roberto Salas went to Cuba with his father, Osvaldo, who had met Castro in the US. Castro asked them to join his new Revolución paper. Salas, surrounded by his images, tells me: “Revolución was the backbone of everything. None of us were press photographers. Korda was fashion, Raúl Corrales publicity, Liborio Noval a lab technician, my father doing weddings, and I had just started taking photographs. We changed press photography in Cuba: we brought in 35mm cameras, natural light photography, and daily picture stories. When Sears withdrew its advertising and we had to fill in the blanks, the photo spreads started rolling in.”
Ernesto Fernández Nogueras, an original Revolución photographer, accompanied Castro during the 1962 missile crisis, and at the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. His picture of Castro cutting sugar cane is inked on the Cuban three-peso bill; on the reverse is Heroic Guerrilla.
After coffee at his home, he leads me into a room and opens a folder preserving prints telling a story which diverges from the carefully crafted official line. Fernández and his photographer son, Ernesto Javier Fernández, were on Havana’s ocean road on Aug 5 1994 when anti-government street protests broke out. Castro later greenlighted Cubans to leave the island, and more than 35,000 took to makeshift rafts aiming for Florida.
At Ernesto Javier’s own studio, Breaking News grabs my attention. It’s a model TV set rotating his images of the rafter crisis, but this “footage” was never broadcast in Cuba, he reveals.
“In 1994 there was no gas, no cigarettes, no milk,” Ernesto explains. “We were eating banana skins. It was option zero. Castro was trying to contain all his errors from 1959 to 1994. The protests began here.”
I question my guide, Sussette Martínez, about works such as this. “What fascinates me,” she says “is that it’s a game of interpretation. You can read the meaning of the work but not say anything, but also… if you are thinking something, why are you thinking it?”
I find I am thinking what I probably shouldn’t be thinking. Cuban-born art critic Gerardo Mosquera describes it as the “You Know Who” syndrome in Art Cuba: The New Generation. “This phrase is used in Cuba to criticise the Maximum Leader without mentioning his name… in the end, both know what the work refers to, but both are protected in an alliance between censor and censored.”
José A Figueroa, who developed Heroic Guerrilla in Korda’s lab, turned his lens on Cuba’s rafter crisis, too. At his home-cum-gallery, we look at Homenaje, La Habana. Taken from a hotel window, the picture shows the ruins of old bathing grounds, carved out of the rock, which appear as black crosses part-submerged in the Atlantic. The ocean was a graveyard for thousands of Cuba’s fleeing rafters.
Intriguing visual narratives are everywhere in Cuba and I was keen to see what interested new-generation photographers. There’s strong support for fine arts and official galleries; and new independent art spaces have opened recently, although not much space is given to photography.
Many photographers are doing it for themselves. At new studio Seis Seis, Sandra Contreras is promoting the Nineties generation who distil Cuba’s conundrums. She exhibits the sharply observed black and white documentary images of Raúl Cañibano, who is inspired by Sebastião Salgado; the beautifully rendered documentary work of Arien Chang, whose rodeo and bodybuilding series showcase alternative Cuban narratives; René Peña, whose many powerful black and white images challenge social identities; Lissette Solórzano and her commentary on the Russians in Cuba; and the multifaceted work of Reinaldo Cid, who has deployed blood in some of his work.
At his home’s Studio 8, Juan Carlos Alom shows me Birth of a Land, striking black and white intimate portraits throwing light on the Abakuá brotherhood, an all-male secret society in Cuba. The Special Period expresses the reality of a dark period of Cuban suffering, when Russia jettisoned subsidies to the island, in both disturbing and ethereally beautiful fashion.
Jorge Otero slices and weaves paper to create textured images. In War Hero, double entendres emerge from the visual vocabulary. The disembodied ear, Nest, has been carved up with a scalpel and is full of holes. It speaks of rumour and communication in Cuba, practically an art form in itself on the island, and I tell him that it reminds me of Britain’s wartime Ministry of Information slogan “Careless Talk Costs Lives”.
For my last two studio visits with Martínez, we explore memory. Cuban National Art Award-winner José Manuel Fors fashions exquisite photo-based work with old books and photographs, and tells me he doesn’t venture out with a camera – all his works are crafted at home.
Fragmentos, a large wheel of scissored vintage photographs, hangs in independent Studio 7 y 60 like fractured fragments of broken glass, and linked with an almost invisible threadlike glue. I think of the shattered lives of Cuban exiles and their web of ties to the homeland.
José Angel Toirac’s challenging work on Guevara and Castro is often censored. In spirited irony, Toirac himself went to the mountains and reproduced Korda’s work as an alternative to the official line. In History’s Permission, he photographed himself in the same set-ups where Korda had directed Castro. Toirac has retooled the government’s account of this storied isle and I find I want to explore more. Emerging into Havana’s colourful streets, the future seems only more fertile for the island’s intrepid photographers as they develop a new post-Castro narrative.
How to do it
Esencia Experiences (esenciaexperiences.com) is offering a three-day guided tour to meet photographers in Havana from £1,996 per person. The price includes five nights’ B&B in luxury accommodation with services of an English-speaking guide, transfers, a concierge service and a vintage classic car at your disposal. Flights cost extra: see skyscanner.net for comparisons.
Where to stay
La Reserva (lareservavedado.com) is Havana’s new glamorous place to stay, in the heart of hip Vedado. Seven sublime suites, cool contemporary art on the walls and a leafy courtyard with a 24-hour bar make this an essential Havana address.
El Castillo (no website, bookable through Esencia Experiences, above) is a quirky five-bedroom castellated mansion with a pool, once owned by a Spanish count. Recline in splendour in the upmarket Playa district.
Penthouse Concordia (casaconcordia.net) is a snappily decorated flat in gritty Centro Habana with its own terrace and winning rooftop views.