The big picture: a window on a Cuban childhood

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Raúl Cañibano’s magical photograph of rural Cuba captures his longing for the countryside of his youth

This image is included in the first UK exhibition by Cuban photographer Raúl Cañibano. It forms part of a poignant series on rural life in Cuba that he began in the 1990s. The picture is typical of his work, which concentrates on fleeting, almost magical realist images of daily life. Here, a child views caged birds through an opaque window. The photographer is on the inside with the birds, looking out, raising pointed questions about the nature of artistic freedom and its discontents.

Cañibano, now 58, was not always a photographer. Born two years after Castro’s revolution in the sugar farming region of Cienfuegos, he grew up to be a welder working in civil aviation. He was nearly 30 when a visit to a show of surrealist photographs inspired him to pick up a camera. At first, he photographed weddings at weekends, but eventually he gave up his day job and moved out on to the streets.

His vocation did not arrive at a good moment. The US embargo on trade with Cuba, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, meant that materials, which had mostly come from East Germany, were in short supply. Cañibano had to work with expired photographic stock, and was thus limited in the number of pictures he could take, which made each composition an event.

The challenges in making the images seem to add to their value. Cañibano works now as a commercial photographer in Cuba, but the ongoing series captures a complex yearning for the countryside of his childhood: “The child in this picture, the son of peasants,” he said recently, “was playing just like these children do; in a different way to city children because their playthings are the countryside and everything that surrounds them.”

Raúl Cañibano: Chronicles of an Island is on at the Print Sales space of the Photographers’ Gallery, London W1, until 17 November

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