Photographer Anna Mia Davidson has released her latest book, Cuba: Black and White, a series of photographs taken during her time in Cuba.
Her photos tell the story of a turbulent time in during the beginning of the ban of trade and travel between Cuba and the United States. A break in diplomatic relations ultimately created a de facto embargo on information about Cuba.
“As a young activist, I questioned the morality of the US embargo against Cuba. I was eager to find the positive in a country that I was forbidden to travel to by my government,” said Davidson. In 1999, at just 25 years old, Davidson made her way to Cuba to capture the Cuban people’s perspective. Ultimately, she was in search of the positive in an otherwise bureaucratically dismal situation, and although encountering moments that caused her to shift her thinking at times what she found rising to the surface was the spirit and resilience of the Cuban people.
And the photos of Cuba: Black and Whitedepicted the spirit, the resilience, and the beauty somewhat inextricable from the struggle. Because where there is struggle, there will be hope, and this is the positive that Davidson captured. “The beauty within the struggle, that became what was positive for me. The hope, the humanity.”
“It’s within those movements of life that I find beauty. I am attracted to human form in much of my Cuban work,” she said. She refers to her image Ishmael In Love as “an important image because finding moments of passion amongst struggle is profound and beautiful and helps restore faith in humanity. Passionate love can transcend all and brings a sense of hope.”
Her imagery, she explained is a personal exploration of humanity through the lens of a young woman activist. They are personal to her journey yet universal in the ability to relate on a human and soulful level. Her depictions of Cuba are very much based on her experiences in Cuba, her photos a conduit for her expression. She recalls a hitchhike to a small town a few hours from Havana with a Cuban photographer friend Davidson had made, “sharing the wind in our hair and stories of our life and all the characters we met along the way it was a bonding experience and a moment I felt a true friendship cross all cultural and political boundaries,” she said.
Davidson documented her experiences also through text, writing in her journal, this excerpt from 2003:
“While I am part of many moments that show me the positive remnants of Castro’s vision, I also feel that Cuba is changing. I see even more clearly how important it is to document and witness the elements of a society that will inevitably change in the upcoming years.”
For Davidson, Cuba is an intoxicating and perplexing country. She fell deeply in love with the people, she explained, particularly their spirit of perseverance and their ingenuity when confronting profound adversity. “It was ultimately within the shadows that I found Cuba’s dichotomies in all their beautiful and trying complexities.”
A “transgression” such as Davidson’s led her to find little pieces of herself that perhaps she may not have discovered. “Those were the years that would shape me as a person and as a photojournalist,” she said. “This book was created during formative years in my own life. I was not only looking for the truth that surpassed the stereotypes of Cuba, I was looking for hope for humanity in general, for answers from a forbidden country only 90 miles our neighbor. I was both rebellious and open to growing as a person myself.”
As she spent more and more time in Cuba, Davidson started to notice the changes in a country that had faced the brunt of political and economic hardships. When she first visited, she remained open-minded as possible, listening and observing the people through her own eyes, she explained. “Propaganda exists on both sides of the coin, and as a photojournalist it becomes imperative to siphon out the noise and capture the truth and essence of the situation as you experience it,” she said.
Another fragment from her journal in 2000 encapsulates her feelings,
“The struggle of the Cuban people is a complex issue. I haven’t figured it all out yet. All I can do is listen. Listen and try and understand. It’s easy to romanticize revolution, It’s harder to live in it’s aftermath.”
But towards the end of her photographic project in 2008, what Davidson felt was the ‘real’ Cuba, she had venture further and further from the major urban centres that were becoming tourist epicentres. As the years progressed, it took her more time and energy to permeate the tourist façade and get deeper into the heart of Cuba.
She recalls sorting through the thousands of her images when she was editing for her book. “It was like revisiting old friends,” she reminisced. “Each image had a memory and a story for me on a personal level. And one thing that did not strike me at the time I was photographing but grabbed me upon the editing phase sixteen years later was that I was there ‘pre-cell phone era’ so not one image in my thousands of negatives have a single cell phone in them, for better or worse that is truly a time long lost.”
If there is nothing else, it is clear that Cuba and its people had a profound effect on Davidson. Her hope for Cuba, she explained, is that changes that come bring about more opportunities that the Cuban people themselves have hoped for and want and not what the cruel reality of capitalism at it’s worst can bring. “Like the maternity center photographs in my book which signify a microcosm of Cuba on the whole, we all wait for the inevitable…change,” she said.
Dispersed among the photos of children, the elderly, life in rural Cuba, in Cuba: Black and White, we find even more fragments from Davidson’s journal that documents her thoughts and feelings, as well as some original poetry. “The streets are alive with sounds of Cuba as I go to sleep” she wrote for April 11, 2003 at Cienfuegos. Cuba: Black and White is, if nothing else, an exercise in sentience through a medium expertly expressed by Davidson.
Cuba: Black and White by Anna Mia Davidson is now available in selected bookstores and online outlets. Designed by Anna Mia Davidson and Gerhard Steidl. Published by Steidl.
featured image: Mike Fleming/FlickrCC
This post first appeared on fluoro. © HM Group (Aus) Pty Ltd 2016