Havana Youth Is a Tribute to the Millennials Redefining What It Means to Be Cuban

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A report by Jessica Lipscomb for The Miami New Times.

Shortly after photojournalist Greg Kahn left his newspaper job in 2012 to become a freelancer, he traveled to Cuba for the first time to begin working on a project about the island’s changing economy. The country had recently begun to allow citizens to buy and sell property, and Kahn was curious about what that would mean for the people who lived there.

Although the photo project started out as a traditional news story, a chance encounter his final night on the island — at the house of a person he had hired to help with his travels — changed everything.

“I was there at my fixer’s house for dinner, and we heard this bass thumping through his walls,” Kahn says. “You could tell it wasn’t coming from inside the building. It was outside somewhere.”

After dinner, he ducked out to see what was going on. Around the corner, he discovered a plaza where more than a thousand Cubans were dancing to music from several DJs elevated on a giant stage.

“They were playing the hits of today, like electronic music and things that I was hearing currently in the U.S.,” he says. “It really kind of stuck out as something that I hadn’t seen while I was there.”

Kahn photographed the block party and promised himself he’d return. Over the next five years, he made six trips to Cuba and met dozens of young DJs, dancers, and artists from the country’s millennial generation. The resulting photos are compiled in Kahn’s first book, Havana Youth, which was released earlier this month.

Paula Fernandez, 25, a member of the female electronic DJ duo Pauza, spins at La Romana, a club in Havana. See more photos from photographer Greg Kahn's book, Havana Youth.

Paula Fernandez, 25, a member of the female electronic DJ duo Pauza, spins at La Romana, a club in Havana. See more photos from photographer Greg Kahn’s book, Havana Youth.

The book focuses on Cuban teenagers and 20-somethings born after 1989, who grew up during the country’s so-called Special Period after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The economic crisis of that time was marked by widespread job loss, a reduction in wages, and famine. Kahn was interested in exploring how the younger generation was embracing a sense of individuality in a country so shaped by a collectivist mentality.

Fashion was the most visible form of self-expression he encountered on the island. With no exposure to brand advertising and limited access to the internet, young Cubans had a style all their own.

“As this fashion blogger told me, when you’re wearing the clothes that you want to, you’re making a statement that’s on par with writing an article against the government,” Kahn says. “It’s a major political statement that you’re going to wear this and you’re not going to look like anybody else. That goes against kind of the ethos of the government that you’re not really an individual but part of the larger machine.”

Miguel Leyva, 22, a fashion blogger in Havana, says, "Clothes have a strong connotation here, like a journalist writing an article against the government. It means to be free." See more photos from photographer Greg Kahn's book, Havana Youth.

Miguel Leyva, 22, a fashion blogger in Havana, says, “Clothes have a strong connotation here, like a journalist writing an article against the government. It means to be free.” See more photos from photographer Greg Kahn’s book, Havana Youth.

Since Kahn shot his first pictures in 2012, much has changed for his subjects in Cuba. Many jobs have been moved to the private sector, and money from foreign investors has made it possible for young Cubans to earn a living as part of the growing artistic class. In 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama loosened travel restrictions between the two countries, paving the way for Americans to visit Cuba. After several record years, tourism in Cuba declined after President Donald Trump rolled back those changes in 2017.

Havana Youth subtly depicts those milestones, providing a glimpse of young Cubans with smartphones and Adidas sneakers while also showing harsher realities of the country, such as power outages and a sign taped to a refrigerator regrettably offering visitors “solo agua.”

Kahn says he hopes his book shows a different side of life in Cuba, something he believes will be truly transformed by the current young generation and the one after that.

“This is the beginning of a country that’s going to look radically different in 50 years,” he says. “This is the time people are going to point to as the start.”

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