In 2015, after decades of hostile government mediation, Cuba and the United States finally restored their tense diplomatic relations. While this affiliation remains incredibly complicated, the American fascination with Cuba as an inaccessible region has softened, and many individuals have travelled to the island to witness and document its contemporary culture. The issue with this perspective is that it often perpetuates the exotic definitions of Cuba and its people, focusing on the pre-established tropes that many non-Cuban individuals internalize before their arrival.
In an effort to subvert this stereotypical visualization of the country, photographer Colby Tarsitano travelled to Cuba with her camera, approaching her surroundings in a natural and relaxed manner. Instead of seeking out the tropes of highly-saturated colors and old cars, she focused on natural ambient lighting and what she calls “quiet moments,” those glimpses of people acting natural with their loved ones or in solitude. The resulting images make up her series Querida Cuba, a collection of photographs that the photographer hopes will redefine the island’s generalizations.
In this interview, Tarsitano speaks to LensCulture about her personal approach as a documentary photographer, the stories behind her images, and what she hopes viewers take away from her poetic visuals.
LensCulture: How did you first start interacting with photography, and how have you seen those interactions evolve into your current practice?
Colby Tarsitano: I remember I was always drawn to photos, looking at them in magazines, on my friends’ Facebook profiles and in books. I loved inundating myself with images. My dad gave me a camera when I was 11, and I started recreating Tumblr photos that I liked, which helped develop my basic technical skills. I then started making my own images, realizing I had the power to transform a normal scene into something that wasn’t necessarily obvious at first glance.
LC: How did this lead you to documentary image-making?
CT: When I became a documentary photographer, I had to learn how to make images that could tell a story or convey a feeling, and once I could do that, it all kind of clicked. I remember very distinct moments when I was shooting and would come to a realization about something technical, or a concept that a professor had spoken to me about – those are the moments when everything started coming together.
LC: So tell me how Querida Cuba came to life. Why did you decide to go to Cuba, and how did this project start?
CT: The project took so many twists and turns before it arrived at this point. It really started as a travel diary of my time abroad in the country. I wanted to capture as much of that time as I possibly could. I started by taking photos of our house, the people I was with, and our trips. I wanted to capture both the essence of the island and its culture. Prior to living there, I had this preconceived notion of what it was going to be like, and once I actually arrived, I realized it was much different from what I anticipated. Everything about the country was shockingly beautiful – the buildings, the landscape, and especially the people.
LC: How did it evolve from a travel diary to a more solid documentary series?
CT: It actually happened after I came home from Cuba. I started to realize that the body of work I was producing should depict the culture, and that I should use my personal experiences to tell a story about the realities of the region. I felt that I owed it to Cuba to make a body of work that focused on what it taught me, and for providing me with experiences that I couldn’t get elsewhere. It was difficult to explain my sentiments about the islands in words when I got home, and I wanted people to understand how impactful the experience was. Since I couldn’t verbally explain the feelings, I decided to show it through images. At this point, I still don’t feel like the work is anywhere close to being done. Instead, it’s at a comfortable resting period. I plan on returning to Cuba to further develop the project, digging deeper into the concepts that I’ve barely scratched the surface of.
LC: You’ve explained that this work focuses on “quiet moments.” What exactly do you mean by that?
CT: There were countless times in Cuba when people would have these intimate, wholesome moments with themselves in public settings – on the bus, walking down the street, or sitting on their porch. They would dance to music, even if it was playing in the distance, say a prayer, or cheer for their baseball team playing on the TV. Once, a professor explained the concept of quietness and intimacy that some images portray, and I think Cuba is where I finally started understanding that idea. I saw those moments everywhere, and I couldn’t help but photograph them. I call them quiet moments because no one notices them happening – they are subtle and often happen in solitude, when a person doesn’t realize someone is watching – like the couple kissing on the bench. These are moments that would happen whether I was there or not, existing in their own little realm.
LC: Cuba has come to be known for its iconic color scheme and warm, ambient light, but you manage to capture a softer perspective. Tell me a bit about the use of color in your work. Why are they so important to incorporate in new ways?
CT: I place a strong emphasis on both light and color when I shoot. They’re very specific and important to my work, which is why there’s this dreamy ambiance across all my projects. For me, color and light work hand in hand. In predominantly shooting film, I discovered the range of tones that the medium has to offer, and redirected my focus in capturing the colors in my images. I focus on brighter and softer ranges rather than deep, dark ones, which has changed my shooting style so that I look for colors that can create a conversation with one another in an image.
Cuba took my fixation on light and color to a whole new level by providing me with both in abundance. I think colors are important in depicting the region, specifically because of how iconic they are in how the country is perceived. From the buildings and cars to the sunsets and nature, color is an integral part of Cuba’s aesthetic.
LC: I’d like to discuss some of the stories behind particular images. Can you tell me about how you took the photograph of the couple kissing on the bench?
CT: All of these images have a sentimental story attached to them, but this one is definitely sentimental. I sat on a curb behind the bus stop to load a new roll of film and saw them sitting on the bench in front of me. As the man leaned over and kissed his wife, they heard the shutter release and turned towards me. I blushed and explained that I was a photographer, and the man became very excited because he was a photojournalist when he was in his thirties. We talked about film for a while, because he was so excited that I was still using it, and when his wife insisted it was time to go, the man hugged me goodbye and wished me well. Connecting with strangers from a different country, who speak a different language than your own, is very magical, and there’s something about Cuba that makes that sort of interaction happen all the time.
LC: The image of the girls in white dresses amongst the striking green foliage is also very magical. Where was this taken?
CT: My roommate and I were walking home from class one day, and we noticed an intricate building that had a garden. We walked inside and through the garden, down a path lined with walls of trees. We turned a corner and a group of girls stood there in crisp, white dresses, whispering and giggling to each other. They were in the middle of a ceremony for Santeria, similar to the First Communion in the Catholic tradition. I liked how their white dresses looked against the backdrop of green trees. It was a profound little moment that I witnessed and captured, and is especially sentimental because it is the first image I shot on my Rolliflex, which I bought at an antique flea market in Havana Vieja earlier that day.
LC: How did you find your experience of Cuba change when you really began looking at it through your camera’s lens? Did it start feeling different when you started thinking about it in still images?
CT: The way I felt about Cuba without my camera is what compelled me to start shooting – a fascination with profound moments, intricate details, and fleeting beauty. That feeling never changed. What did change, though, was the duty I felt to represent the country in a way that would alter peoples’ opinions of it. When I was there, I showed 4x6 prints of my images to everyone I knew, asking questions about whether I was depicting things accurately. I was determined to do the country justice by making impactful photographs.
LC: And how does this determination translate into what you want your viewers to take away from this project?
CT: Despite the familiar geo-political and societal events that define Cuba’s history and contemporary culture, I feel like a lot of Americans have a false sense of what Cuba is really like. They think of the tropes: cigars, old cars and Fidel Castro. But it’s a country with a powerful history that is constantly being discussed. I want to break through any stereotypical thoughts that viewers have about the country, and show them something about its culture that re-contextualizes it.