William Noland - Cuban Stories
My interest in creating images of Cuba grew out of a moment in 1996 when, in Montevideo, Uruguay to mount a photography exhibition, I noticed a tourist poster on the lobby wall of a downtown municipal building. Typical of such posters, it showed a tanned, handsome couple in bright sunshine, smiling and holding hands as they walked on a pristine, palm-edged beach. I was taken aback, moments later, when I realized the tourist destination being advertised was Cuba. I’d never before seen Cuba depicted as an idealized Caribbean paradise. On the contrary, like most other citizens of the United States, I’d been bombarded for years by negative images, in my case going all the way back to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although my personal politics had always been, in virtually every respect, highly critical of U.S. policy towards the island and sympathetic towards Cuba, the negative stereotypes were nevertheless firmly planted in my consciousness. Such is the power of imagery and propaganda.
This incident led me to begin to ask questions about those stereotypes, and, naturally, about the very different idea of Cuba held by South Americans. In speaking to Uruguayans and Argentineans about the island, I found that they, too, were burdened with stereotypes and exaggerations, although very nearly the polar opposite of North American versions. In order to develop a penetrating line of inquiry, I recruited my brother-in-law, Felipe Arocena, an Uruguayan sociologist and journalist who shared my curiosity about these issues, to accompany me for a firsthand look. In our work together we sought to ask questions about the various meanings of Cuba, taking into consideration the differing views held by its neighbors to the north and south.
From 1998 to 2001, I made three trips to Cuba and a fourth trip to look at Little Havana in Miami. The trips involved a range of exploration that was part artistic, part journalistic and part sociological. Cuban Stories, the book project excerpted here, attempts to sketch the present situation in Cuba in all of its deep ambiguity. The chapter titles of the proposed book, which here accompany each facing pair of photographs, are taken from the revolutionary slogans that appear on billboards and walls throughout the island. The individual titles function as metaphoric and somewhat abstract frameworks for each group of images. A small number of these are relatively up to date, such as the final chapter’s Let’s save Elián. Most, however, are faded, both literally and figuratively, tinged with the irony of events as they have actually transpired.
The past weighs heavily for all Cubans, but the burden may be lifting. The majority of today’s population was born after the Revolution. To many, particularly those under 40, Fidel is “El Viejo”, a fixture who’s simply always been there, an icon who represents the past rather than the future. The considerable seductions of Castro’s voice and persona have a continuing allure, but it is a frayed and fading attraction with scant connection to everyday lives and concerns. Instead, the juggernaut of American culture is now perhaps the greater seduction, poised to consume and erase, a nearby world that remains, for the moment, tantalizingly held at bay by the regime’s dogged grip and the island’s finite boundaries.
That other world beyond Cuba’s shores begins in Miami. In the Cuban exile community, young adults born after Castro’s rise to power now outnumber the aging, diehard cold warriors that bear such an intense hatred towards his regime. The children of the older generation carry forward the hatred but without the hard edge. Their children, the younger generation, express a surprisingly neutral attitude about the homeland, mildly disapproving of Castro but doing so with only faint traces of the passion expressed by their parents and grandparents.
My time in Cuba showed me that the contradictions of the situation are indeed stunning, and that a large number of stereotypes, both positive and negative, hold within them elements of the truth. Many of the promises of the Revolution have long since been discarded; most Cubans are frightened and intimidated by the regime on some level; while hunger is not widespread, most Cubans do have a shockingly low standard of living. On the other hand, the individual is important there; children are well-educated and kept in good health from infancy; family and community ties are naturally strong and enduring; and many people there seem to know how to enjoy their lives in ways that should make us envious.
In my photographs, I seek to wrestle with some of the paradoxes that characterize Cuba at the beginning of the 21st century. The images delve simultaneously into the private and public realms and speak to the delicacy of a moment that straddles a rich but troubled past and a future that is alternately optimistic and ominous.