Candid Shots of Cuba

“Anytime you dangle something in front of an artist that’s risky and seductive and supposedly forbidden,” photographer Michael Dweck writes, “it’s only a matter of time before that artist bites.” For Dweck, the destination that’s made him bite is Cuba, an island whose life and people he has captured in a book titled Habana Libre. In his first career as an advertising executive and now as a lauded photographer, Dweck has always held a captive audience. In Cuba, a place he has visited more than a dozen times, Dweck set out to capture a different side of the island.

“Surprise to many in the world, and most in the United States: there is happiness in Cuba,” he writes in the foreword of book. “The US policy is crushing, socialism is an empty closet and the country seems held together by average families masterfully adept at jerry-rigging their day-to-day existence. Really, Cubans may be the most ingenious people on the planet.”

We now enter a new era where this off-limits and off-the-grid country might become more accessible. Says the photographer, “I’m glad I got there when I did. If I’d waited even a year or two, it would be a much different scene; a much different book.”

What first brought you to Cuba and what were your initial impressions?

I’d had ideas about working in Havana for a long time – though I didn’t know the scope or the focus until I got there and started poking around and making connections. I knew I wanted to photograph the island emotionally, but what that meant, I wasn’t really sure.

I knew I had to go, though. Doesn’t everyone want to go? Here’s a place that’s always been painted as dangerous and sensual; a country that my government denotes as “off-limits.” It’s human nature to want what you can’t have and, I suppose, an artist’s nature to find a way to approach and synthesize it.

I think that method really allowed Habana Libre to sneak in the backdoor, so to speak; to break down some of the misconceptions: it depicts an overall joy that permeates Cuban life, in spite of the government. And it depicts artists leading fine lifestyles, thanks, in part, to the support of the same government.

How has the country changed since your first visit? A lot has loosened even in recent months: Cubans are now allowed to have cell phones. The government has issued 390,000 small business licenses. People can own property. I met a woman in Havana a few years ago when she was making 20 cents a day as the assistant director of a contemporary art gallery. She now owns her house which could be sold for $1.2 million. How do we even begin to understand the implications of such a change?

The island is also seeing some new construction. Golf courses and hotels are slowly being restored. The government is obviously short on money and seem to be making capitalistic concessions, which is good and bad, depending on how you look at it. There will be more money coming in eventually, but at what cost? Already, some of the under-the-radar clubs I’ve visited have been overtaken by tourists.

Were people welcoming to you taking their picture when you first started shooting in Cuba?

Once the artists knew who I was – once they knew I wasn’t just some joker with a nice camera – they were very welcoming. It helped that we shared some common ground and that, in some cases, we were familiar with one another’s work.

This isn’t Disneyland – it’s illegal to photograph in most places without approval. So, if you make it to Havana, don’t expect to be able to go into a nightclub or a café or an artist’s studio and start snapping photos.

Your book is divided into sections, eg models, cars, art, etc. Did you choose to photograph these separate subjects, or did you notice your themes as you were compiling the works for this book? I had themes in mind, but conceptualized them more as “scenes” – as in a film. That’s part of what makes the book unique – I tried to direct a narrative thread that carries the reader through the work.

The flow is chronological and fluctuates between the nocturnal and the diurnal: in a nightclub; the next day at a concert or an amusement park; a party at an artist’s studio at 1am; the backseat of a convertible; The Tropicana at night; driving on the highway when the car breaks down; at the beach; beside a pair of lovers in an abandoned elevator; on Avenue de Presidente with 50,000 teenagers on a Saturday night. The whole thing plays out like the stills of a sensual trip through these elite circles in Cuba. It’s like a movie on paper in a dream.

What do you miss from home when you are traveling? I miss my family. I miss speaking English. I miss the conveniences, the predictability, the internet access. I miss everything that I’ll take for granted again when I’m back home and begin missing what I’d wasted my time resenting. And that’s what I tried to remind myself every time I went back to Havana: Just go with it and enjoy where you are and what that means.

There’s something charming about the isolation too. Sure, I wish there was wifi or 4G, but there’s also something priceless about relaxing and smoking a cigar on a terrace overlooking the Malecon without constantly feeling compelled to check email every eight minutes. After all, you can’t really appreciate something for what it is if you’re hung up on what it’s not. Luxury is a relative term and only a fool tries to escape a place with the hopes of it following him.

Do you have a favorite Cuban artist?

Carlos Quintana is probably my favorite contemporary Cuban painter. Also, Rachel Valdes who is featured on the cover of Habana Libre is only 20 years old, but her paintings are phenomenal and I know we’ll be seeing a lot more of her in years to come. Traditionally speaking, I’d have to go with Wilfredo Lam – his style wanders from cubism to surrealism and should be up there alongside Picasso.

Art buyers need to get a permit (which will take 20 minutes) and then can take any works home. It’s the same as in many countries – customs wants to inspect the purchase, make sure it’s not from antiquity and collect all due taxes. But artists have no issues, and they are free to exhibit outside of Cuba as well.

Have you ever visited any place that felt like Cuba or is the country totally unique in the world? I think every place is unique, but Cuba’s singularity takes things a step further as the originality is cultural, geographical and, in ways, generational.

Until recently, Cuba was pretty much the same country it had been since the revolution in 1959. The buildings and cars haven’t changed, the government hasn’t changed, the society hasn’t really been influenced by outside media. It’s like Pompeii after Vesuvius erupted. Everything seems preserved from some lost moment of impact.

Prior to the revolution, though, there was a lot of foreign money pouring into the country, which accounts for the surprisingly durable infrastructure. Many roads seem better maintained than the Long Island Expressway. But the nostalgic element of the island underscores everything, as does the unavoidable existence of Fidel’s regime. Those are inescapable realities that make Cuba remarkable.

Cuba has a vibrant urban culture but no widely available internet. Is this a shock when you first visit? Do you notice this instantly when visiting?

One could make the case that this vibrant culture and its societal quirks are in fact due to lack of internet access and the outside influence the internet brings. There is still a surprising amount of communication and interconnectivity despite the lack of internet and high price of modern, technological contact.

Cuba’s first big outdoor concert, Peace Without Borders, was held in Revolution Square a couple years ago and organizers were expecting over a million people. But in the days leading up to the concert, there were no posters or commercials and no one knew when it was. I even asked Juanes, the featured performer, and he wasn’t sure. But somehow, people found out. At midnight that Friday, I heard people coursing through the streets and the next day there were 1.5 million people in the square for the start of the show. It’s an old-school system of communication – how life worked before cell phones and email. In many ways it’s more efficient than our modern methods, boiling down information into necessity, forcing people to rely on one another and making us interact face to face in ways Facebook never will.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Havana and elsewhere in Cuba? What should a first-time visitor not miss? I’ve really only spent time in Havana and Playa Del Este, but my favorites activities are the same anywhere: jazz, dinner with artists and friends, smoking cigars and drinking 18-year-old rum on a veranda overlooking the Malecon.

A first-time visitor to Havana should visit the Partagas Factory (Calle Industria 520) to see the best cigars in the world being rolled. Have a mojito in the garden of Hotel Nacional (Calle 21 y O, Vedado, Plaza Havana) then eat in La Guarida, the restaurant featured in the film Fesa y Chocolate. There’s a band called Los Kents, which is like a Cuban version of the Rolling Stones – you can catch them in Miramar. I’d see the 10pm show at the Tropicana too. (Some people say it’s touristy, but there’s something amazing about seeing a show that hasn’t changed since 1928. It’s incredibly sexy and timeless.) You should request a table in the front. Hear some jazz at La Zorra y El Cuervo, and if you’re lucky you’ll catch Roberto Fonseca playing a late session—he is single-handedly changing jazz piano. Or go to Don Congrejo (Av. 1, between Calles 16 and 18) late on a Friday night and try to see Kelvis Ochoa. A walk on the Malecon after 11pm on a weekend night will keep you pretty busy.

I find Havana a terrific place to bounce around spontaneously. If you know enough Spanish and are willing to have an adventure, you should talk to people, ask around, make friends and see where things take you.

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