Photographer Eduardo Garcia has lived in Havana all his life. His lens often captures Cuba’s lowest classes and addresses pressing social issues via dynamic street scenes. Yet his latest project, “Home,” has taken a more personal, documentary-orientated turn.
The photographs are shot in Havana’s old Campoamor theater and look into the life of Reynaldo, a man who became homeless after his godfather passed away. Although the theater had been shut down for decades, Reynaldo discreetly occupied one of the dressing rooms and transforming it into his home for the last 20 years.
Before the Revolution, when Havana boasted “the high life,” the city was marked by a booming casino culture and an array of all kinds of indulgences. It was then that the Campoamor theater was a symbol of high class and art; one of the capital’s thriving and architecturally impressive cultural hubs. After struggling through The Special Period (a time of economic crisis in Cuba, in the early 90s), the building became neglected. Today, it is barren and crumbling at the hinges, beloved only by its occupants, Reynaldo and his dog.
The images are subtle, suggestive and speak volumes. We rarely see Reynaldo’s face yet the frames are soaked in his presence. Garcia presents an example of one person’s encounter with the austerity that hit the Cuban people, yet it illustrates the experiences and the frugality of many across the island.
Although the Coampoamor but might not look like much, it is is Reynaldo’s sole sanctuary. However, his future there grows more uncertain every day due to the restoration efforts happening around Havana (not to mention the theater’s foundational instability). Although Garcia believes strongly in telling Reynaldo’s story, he also had some doubts about publishing the work. In his words, “Authorities know about him and his presence in the theater, but he doesn’t pose a problem to them unless people create stories about him against the regime…” Garcia hopes this story can raise awareness about a nation-wide problem, without jeopardizing Reynaldo’s long-time home.
LensCulture contributing writer Francesca Cronan reached out to Eduardo Garcia to find out more about his motivations, his methods and his hopes for the project. This is an edited transcript of their exchange:
LC: How did you first meet Reynaldo?
EG: The old theater had always caught my attention and I’d wanted to photograph inside for many years. Originally I just wanted to document the remnants of the building before it collapsed. Once I saw a man outside the theater, opening a padlock to an improvised door. I introduced myself and asked if I could take pictures of the interior. For a while he was very suspicious but eventually he asked if I was a journalist. I told him I wasn’t. Then he said, “Ok. 5 minutes. After, you leave.”
In this short time I couldn’t photograph much, but I did notice a couple of things like buckets of water, a collection of plastic bottles, plants and a barking dog. I gathered that he wasn’t a construction worker. This piqued my interest, I wanted to visit again. So I went back and brought him some coffee, a few bottles of oil, tinned tomatoes, jam, razors and some soap. I just tried to be helpful and friendly.
After few visits, I had his permission to photograph inside the theater. I was engaged from the very moment I met Reynaldo, but the more time I spent with him, the more I wanted to develop the project. So far I’ve spent 4 months photographing “Home” and I’d like to continue doing so for the coming years.
LC: Your representation of Reynaldo shows him to be respectful, resourceful, discreet and healthy…He challenges the stereotypes many people might unfortunately attach to the homeless. What were your intentions by documenting Reynaldo and his living situation?
EG: Cuba is not known for high rates of homelessness, yet housing is a terrible problem in Cuba. Reynaldo is an example of thousands of Cubans who live in precarious circumstances and have to improvise and adopt creative methods of survival. Even if they own their houses, due to their low income, many people have to be thrifty and use recycled materials to make the basic, everyday objects they need for living.
As an individual, I was particularly struck by Reynaldo’s optimism. He lives in a collapsing theater and yet his determination and discipline for preserving his home and well-being is very admirable. He works very hard, always looking for employment as a handy man, electrician or painting houses. In the theater, he cleans, washes clothes, does the dishes and cooks. He practices martial arts to create a balance between the spirit and the body, providing him with a serenity that feeds his positivity. He loves reading and listening to music; he gives value to art and has good manners. Essentially, he has complete control of himself and his activities—but not his fate.
LC: Your street photography is centered around documenting Cuba’s lower classes—why have you focused on this subject?
EG: I am concerned by the difficulties that affect my environment and photographing these themes is a way for me to participate in the dialogue surrounding these problem and further spread awareness.
As I mentioned, housing is a terrible problem in Cuba. You often find three generations living together in a house or apartment, sometimes including other relatives. Six years ago, it was forbidden to sell or buy houses or apartments. Some used to do it illegally, but it was risky. Now that it is legal, prices are very high and are inaccessible to many.
During the beginning of the Special Period in 1992, I was fourteen and my family was beat down by austerity. That period marked me deeply.
Addressing problems by documenting them is like saying, “Yes, it is real.” It gets people to look rather than turn a blind eye.
LC: What made you transition from street photography to a personal, documentary project?
EG: Even though the approach is different, there isn’t much of a difference in my objectives. I am interested in people and social issues. Being a street photographer is a convenient way for me to meet people; I run into fascinating individuals, learn a bit about their lives and witness some remarkable moments. In a way documentary is very similar, but it allows me to go deeper into someone’s story or situation. Even though a snapshot from a street scene can be very powerful and can say a lot about social issues, a documentary series can often be more substantial.
I also think maturity and experience have influenced my photography. I’ve noticed that as I age, I’ve become much more observant. I worked a bit slower while shooting “Home” and was very respectful. I often work this way even when shooting street scenes, as I want to respect people and I don’t like to be invasive.
LC: You focus your lens on the remnants of beautiful architecture, highlighting the building’s retained charm. Is the project a metaphor for Cuba (or the Cuban people)?
EG: Reynaldo’s experience is an example of what has happened to many of the island’s inhabitants over these years. The vast majority of our cities have deteriorated due to the decadent management of the Cuban regime. Many people have had to take on these problems completely by themselves, trying to find solutions in any way they can. I am trying to show that in spite of the years of austerity, Cubans have preserved their dignity and optimism.
We Cubans say that we are the only citizens in the world that laugh and make fun of our own tragedies. But the problem is that some Cubans are oblivious and overlook our past, our history and the promises made by the government to the young generations a long time ago. Today they are still waiting, forgetting that they’re not as young as they used to be!
—Interview and text by Francesca Cronan
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