In Cuba, an island caught between the grandeur of old world glory and the decay of the immediate epoch, I found an urban landscape that reflects a struggle between daily life and the slow forces of Nature; and a religious fervor that has superimposed old-world African demigods onto the new-world Roman Catholic saints.

Havana is home to the architecture of a decadent and multicultural past. Trinidad still retains some interior grandeur of the colonial homes, each displaying a family’s eclectic possessions. Santiago de Cuba echoes the deeply entrenched religions of Santeria, Congo, Spiritus and Catholicism. Household shrines often honor all aspects of these beliefs. In the vestigial remains of a one street of Chinatown in Havana, I found 13 casinos or clubs each serving as a center for the few old members of that clan to share their morning teatime.

I came to work on this portfolio by merely wandering down the streets alone, carrying my 4x5 camera on a tripod. I was thrilled to discover that in Havana and Cuba, everyone talks to you. I have never had such a relationship with any other city. As they see me with a view camera and tripod, they are curious. And when I explain my interests, I am invited into their homes and immediately I see images and start to set up the camera.

Seeing how long it is taking, how excited I am about their rooms and altars, they volunteer all kinds of treasures as they only have these treasures and seldom have the chance to indulge in their memories. They are so proud to have me photograph them. Then the word is spread along the hall way and the street and I have to visit everyone.

The current living condition is that a former large beautiful home may now house a family in each room. Each home lead to a neighboring home, and each one-room casa held stored-away treasures.

Despite the cramped conditions of a whole family living in a small space, there is always a place reserved for the altar of the family patron saint. As consumer goods are limited, all things old are used and reused creatively and are interesting to our eyes.

I deliberately chose not to photograph the people in Cuba; I wanted to show their presence through their personal spaces and belongings. When modern day commodities become more available to these families, I suppose their homes will start to look more like ours. I suppose all things are changing even now. However, from my experiences there, I believe strong multicultural religious influences will always prevail.

—Elaine Ling