Havana Through the Lens

Max Orlando Ba*os was a mechanic until he picked up an old Russian camera a few years ago. Before he knew it he'd become a photographer, shooting the streets of Old Havana where he has always lived and where he knows everyone. The roof literally caved in on his family's home there a couple of months ago, and they moved from the rubble to a gutted building near the harbor. The new loftlike space has become a meeting place for a group of Cuban photographers who take pictures of what Ba*os calls "the real Havana."

A few blocks away stands the palatial Museum of the Revolution, which is mostly a photo gallery hung with posed pictures of young bearded faces, secret meetings, and guerrillas crawling through the brush en route to the Moncada barracks. These scenes were the beginning of what has been one long photo opportunity, creating more than 30 years of epic imagery.

Ba*os, Pedro Abascal, Rene Pe*a, Manuel Pi*a, and other photographers working in Havana offer alternatives to this official vision of life in Cuba. They are personal views on a human scale, influenced by photographers such as Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The pictures capture the intimacies of family relationships and religious practices, or more timely concerns such as transportation, emigration, and prostitution. One of Rene Pe*a's favorite photographs is a self-portrait with a roll in his hand, inspired by the daily walks he takes across town to his girlfriend's house, where he can usually find a little butter to spread on his ration of bread.

Although their works present a picture very different from that seen in the Cuban press, the artists say they do not carry a conscious critical message. "This is only a commentary," stresses Manuel Pi*a. "It's difficult to criticize something if you don't have sufficient distance from it. I'm immersed in all of this, and I'm just as disoriented as everyone else. My attitude is to show it, because I can't keep quiet about what I see."

The difficulties for photographers in Cuba today are obvious. Film, photographic paper, chemicals, equipment A all of them are in extremely short supply and increasingly expensive. Without the foreign photographers and friends who visit Ba*os's loft, there would be virtually nothing with which to work.

These photographers, who are all in their mid-thirties, are among those whose work was included in "The New Generation," an exhibition organized this past March for the international FotoFest show in Houston, and displayed in Havana during the Biennial. The pictures published here, among the few extra prints they had available, were selected from each photographer's portfolio.

 
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