Waiting for Fidel

Aug 10, 2015

Slought is pleased to publish the first chapter of Waiting for Fidel, a visual study of Cuba by the Canadian photographer Geoffrey James, available online for the first time. These images were taken between 2010 and 2012 in the cities of Havana, Camaguey, and Pinar del Rio. This post also includes a meditation by intern Olivia Horn on the power and limitations of photography in relation to conversations about cultural understanding and difference.

Horn studies Art History and Consumer Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she...

Geoffrey James, from the series <i>Waiting for Fidel</i>, Cuba, 2010-2012

Download the series Waiting for Fidel (2010-2012) by Geoffrey James »

In April, photographer Geoffrey James, the 2012 recipient of a Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts, whose critically acclaimed body of work focuses largely on the relationship between culture and nature, presented this visual study of Havana at Slought as part of an educational workshop about the cultural politics of Cuba. The workshop also included a presentation by historian Geoffrey de Laforcade, which further explored representations of Cuban national identity. These presentations were addressed to students in art history at the University of Pennsylvania, myself included, who would shortly thereafter be travelling to Havana for the 2015 Havana Biennial, as part of a program organized by Penn Summer Abroad. Both speakers emphasized to us the importance of responsibly handling the photographic medium, which has traditionally been used in the spread of cultural misinformation and misunderstanding.

In his presentation, James spoke energetically about the people he had encountered and the landscapes that he recorded, extensively contextualizing every image and explaining his motivations and intentions. For example, he described the photograph featured above in this way:

"The photograph is taken on the first floor of La Guarida, a decaying apartment building in Havana Centro that was used as the set for Tomas Guttierez Alea's film Strawberries and Chocolate (1993). The staircase is adorned with an encomium to Fidel. (By law, streets may not be named after living politicians in Cuba, but there are public messages to Fidel and Raoul everywhere.) The third floor of the building housed La Guarida, one of the few really good palladares in the city at the time. On the mezzanine, apartment dwellers hung out their washing."

James adamantly defended his choice to shoot in black-and-white, citing his reluctance to aestheticize ruin, which he felt to be an inevitable consequence of using color film. He also spoke about the danger of producing images that romanticize everyday struggle and suffering, which he felt has been exacerbated by cultural tourism and globalization more generally. Overall, he seemed determined to speak to each image and narrate the experiences that gave rise to them, rather than presume that they speak for themselves. Rather than conceiving of them as self-evident visual records, James approaches his photographs as dense ethnographic documents with the potential to promote cultural understanding.

At first, James' highly descriptive approach took me by surprise. But perhaps he found it necessary to hyper-narrate Cuba in order to make legible this ethnographic approach. He is asking us to consider the many possible stories offered by his photographs, in order to prevent us from too hastily fabricating a single, unified "Cuban narrative," one which ultimately does not exist. The photographs as James conceived them thus encourage us to be witnesses, and not just observers, of the social landscape of Havana. That is, to use images as a gateway to active thought, rather than viewing them and making passive assumptions. It would be easy to see photographs of Havana's dilapidated buildings and impoverished citizens and immediately pass judgment on the socialist policies that have guided the city to its present state. Yet in doing so, we would be dramatically simplifying what is, in fact, an incredibly complex history. This was a point that was also outlined by de Laforcade – it is important that we combat our inclination to hastily judge any situation that is foreign to us, or to assume that all of the most important elements of a culture are immediately visible and understandable.

How should we approach the imaging of Cuba as new complexities emerge in its rapidly evolving narrative? U.S.-Cuba relations have shifted dramatically since James photographed Havana, particularly in just the past few weeks, and, consequently, the country is situated on the precipice of major social and economic change. It is important that we understand Cuba's transformation in terms much more nuanced than the triumph of American capitalism over outdated Soviet or socialist ideology.

It is yet to be seen exactly how these changes will manifest themselves in the visual landscape of Havana, but it seems likely that the tourist sector will grow exponentially in the years ahead. By recording Cuba's many realities and transformations in the same way that James imaged its recent past – with careful attention to the layers upon layers of meaning embedded in each photograph – we can mitigate our own tendency towards being reductive and develop a more sensitive understanding of visual representation, both as concerns Cuba and the world at large.