The image of the red car and the waves was the very first image I envisioned, even before I went to Cuba. It took me five years and more than thirty trips up the lighthouse’s one hundred forty-four stairs to get exactly what I wanted — to get the light, the waves, the car to all line up with the vision I had. By the time I got the shot I was on a first name basis with the lighthouse keeper — who thought I was completely crazy, lugging my heavy camera gear up the lighthouse so many times. Five years later, I asked my wife to marry me here.
We spoke with photographer Lorne Resnick on his work and perspective on Cuba.
What first brought you to Cuba? What surprised you the most about it? Where did it remind you of, if anywhere?
LR: Being a travel photographer, by the time I first visited Cuba 1995, I was already hooked on traveling to and trying to capture different cultures around the world. Cuba was a surprise on many levels. One of first things I remember was being surprised at how friendly everyone was to Americans. Being that the Cubans were very easy to get to know and very intelligent, I started asking them why they didn’t harbor any animosity towards the Americans. The answer I always got was that they knew the difference between the American people and the American government. I felt this was quite a nuanced and perceptive insight. Cuba reminded me of nowhere else I have ever been in my life. Not even close. My initial visit was supposed to last two-weeks. I stayed for two months. I fell in love with the place pretty quickly. The people, the cars, the buildings, the music, the heat, the light. All very addictive.
You’re originally from Canada; can you talk about your observations as an outside observer into US/Cuba relations? How did that change when you moved to the US and became an American citizen?
LR: One of the things that strikes me the most now living in the US is where the power of this country really lays and how the decisions get made. A few years ago two political scientists did a study of what the US really is structure wise. Self proclaimed as a democracy, with many of the benefits of such, the scientists found that mostly it is run as an oligarchy. (See article here: http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/is-america-an-oligarchy)
So being form Canada and traveling around the world and living in the USA for a long time I was very confused as to the way people voted and the decisions the American government made. The actual Americans themselves seemed to generally not get the kind of government that they said they wanted. It only became clear to me if viewed through the prism of an oligarchy. Then all the decisions (and the fact that the vast majority of the Americans never benefitted from them) made perfect sense. Follow the money. If you educated the American population and gave each one a “voting button” the Embargo would have been down decades ago. But if you have money, it’s easy to keep people in the dark and feed them misinformation and keep the embargo up. Having an enemy is very profitable. So, I’m very cynical now in terms of how the government operates – even with Obama’s strides towards normalizing things, it looks like it’s sliding backwards now under Trump.
Love the photo of the girl on a scooter in the building with the famed restaurant, La Guarida, can you tell me about your relationship with that family and what keeps bringing you back to shoot in that building?
LR:Yes, one of my favorite images. I have been visiting that famous building almost since the day I first came to Cuba. There is truly something magical about it. I photographed it many many times and made friends with many of the people that lived there. Each time I photographed it I would ask the people I knew that lived there if I could bring them anything on my next trip. Most of the requests were of the order of aspirins, vitamins, and toothpaste, that sort of thing.
The girl on the scooter Mailenis appears in my book twice. Her older sister Maiyenis once. I few years ago I asked their mother what I could bring them. Usually it was things like I mentioned above – aspirins, vitamins, etc., this time she mentioned a scooter, which she had seen on an American TV show. So, next trip along with the usual stuff I brought them a scooter to play with, thinking they would play with it outside. After my visit I went upstairs to the La Guarida restaurant. When I came down Mailenis was riding around on the 2nd floor of the building (the same floor they lived on) and I thought – wow, what a great image! So I told her to keep riding and ignore me. That building really does have a special vibe to it. There’s probably about a dozen images in my book I shot there.
You lead photography focused trips to Cuba; what has been your experience taking people to visit Cuba for the first time? Have you traveled with or met Cuban Americans during your visits?
LR: Generally I find it profoundly moving because so many of the people I take there are so moved. There can be many different Cuba’s. If you stay within the touristy areas it can be quite taxing and uninteresting. If you get off the beaten path it can be life changing. I cannot count the number of times people that have traveled with me have said the trip has changed their lives.
I often take Cuban Americans. That experience is always intense. On one particular trip I was with a lovely older woman named Teresa. We were on the Malecón talking and she pulled out a photo album. She pointed to a photo of her mother sitting on that exact spot holding her as a 1 ½ year old baby. Just at that time a young Cuban came up to us (there were several people form my group with us) and starting serenading Teresa by singing and playing guitar. Everyone was in tears. It was an incredibly profound and beautiful moment.
People are always saying that they “want to see Cuba before it changes”, as a photographer and someone who’s been traveling to Cuba for more than 20 years, what do you make of this?
LR: I understand it completely. There is no place on earth that has Cuba’s unique combination. It has been cut off from its closest trading partner for over half a century. Its infrastructure is crumbling. Yet, it has more doctors per capita than the USA, a higher literacy rate than the USA, incredibly sensitive and warm people, world class music and every block you walk seems like a Hollywood movie set. Often it doesn’t see real. So I understand people wanting to reach out and experience something so unique before it gets modernized (Americanized?).
At the same time I feel enough is enough (and answering you next question here) and I wish that Cuba (and the Cubans) could live out their own history, without the heavy hand of the American government manipulating it. The relationship has always been and continues to be very complex between the USA and Cuban. The removal of the embargo I’m sure will lead to great and bot so great things. But for better or worse, the Cubans are entitled to their own future.
What do you hope for the Cuban people in the future?