“…what I love about the Cuban people is their indomitable spirit and relentless sense of humor, under almost any circumstance. Guts. Gratitude. Tenaciousness. Being able to move forward and make lemonade…no matter how crappy the lemons were…and their ability to adapt and to invent…”
—Lucie Arnaz, from the book’s foreword
Although we have seen an explosion of photographs depicting Cuba (especially Havana) in the past 5, 10, and 15 years, it’s easy to feel that a majority of these images merely repeat themselves—the distinctive ’50s cars, the colorful Old Havana quarter (with its tireless array of cigar-chomping women), a sunset landscape with children playing baseball…They are all beautifully composed, of course, but they don’t take us beneath the surface.
Fortunately for us, then, we have the work of one Manuello Paganelli that offers a more complex view of the country. His new book, titled Cuba: A Personal Journey, consists of photographs taken over the course of 25 years and 60 separate trips. With a measure of Cuban blood flowing in his veins and an islanders’ spirit in his heart, Paganelli has captured rare and important scenes from this unique nation—some of which have receded, forever, into the annals of history.
Below, we interview Paganelli to find out more about his extensive project, allowing this great storyteller to take us further behind the frame…
LC: You made more than 60 trips to Cuba in order to produce this work (and also to reconnect with your distant relatives). Over the course of so many trips, did you start to feel…Cuban? Like a true local? Or were you always on the outside looking in, even after so much time spent there?
MP: That is a great question! As someone who grew up in so many places around the world [Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; Italy; Puerto Rico; Tennessee…] I make my home wherever I find myself at that moment. Now, places like the Dominican Republic (where I was born), or Italy and Cuba (where part of my family live), are special to me. And indeed, from the moment I first landed on the island, I felt very Cuban.
LC: Your photography has taken you to many, many countries around the world. Can you talk about some of the particular challenges of shooting in Cuba—and also the unique pleasures?
MP: Challenges were plentiful. Especially in the early days, even getting from one place to the next was very difficult. There was a constant lack of petrol, and the gas stations were often running on empty. When you could get a car, driving on the roads was like crossing a mine field. I remember driving on the main highway—the country’s best road at the time—and suddenly the whole car fell into a mega-hole in the middle of the street. We crawled out and all that was visible from the road was the trunk of the car, pointing at an angle towards the sky…
But I never had a problem with the people. Once I grew more comfortable, I was even taking photographs of the police and, with the right access, the military. Of course, everyone was curious about me and why I was in Cuba—they were especially intrigued by my “neckful” of Leicas. Some thought I was a spy, since cameras were not so ubiquitous back then.
In the early years of my project, Cuba really was an open and unique place—a paradise for anyone, but especially photographers. In those days, it was only your film and your talent that determined what you would be able to produce. In the early ’90s, tourism was not a key issue in the mind of the government, and as such, there were relatively few outsiders. I remember walking across the island and thinking to myself, “What a pity there aren’t foreign photographers anywhere.” I wished, at the time, that there were more people who could show Cuba to the world. Today, we might have the opposite problem…
LC: So many depictions of Cuba focus on the hospitality of the locals, the indomitable spirit of the people. These features are absolutely essential. But you also saw some of the more difficult sides, which you mention at times in your book. Can you say more about the multi-faceted nature of what you captured?
MP: When the Russians left in 1989, nobody in Cuba saw the glass half empty at all. Thus, they were not prepared for the consequences. The country was left without the milk bottle in its mouth, and suddenly it discovered that it couldn’t survive on its own. Before, the Soviet nations brought so much to the country—oil, machinery, cars, food, spare parts, farm equipment—and suddenly it was all gone.
This lead to what they call the “Periodo Especial.” During this difficult time, the average Cuban was said to have lost 20 lbs. Even I found it hard to get a decent meal…My trips were always a mix of capturing images injected with a desire to help as much as I could. I would bring medicine, vitamins, and food to be shared with my Cuban family, friends I had met, the Catholic church, the Synagogue and other folks. Even today, I think it’s a great idea for anybody who travels to Cuba to not take their best clothes so they can leave some behind at the end of the journey…
Racism was another problem that I occasionally confronted over the years. Though the Revolution ended institutionalized segregation, the problem remains present all over (as is the case in many other places). Most professors, scientists, doctors and workers in the tourism industry are white. Even now, most Cubans don’t want to open up about the disparity between the races. But from many black Cubans, I have been told that things improved compared to when Batista was in power. And in some ways, things have always been better than in the US: at least black Cubans are not being killed by the police.
Regardless, even during the most challenging periods, everyone was open to my camera. Nobody was going around saying, “Un dólar por una foto…” They were not materialistic or demanding at all. There were times when people would really go out of their way to help—for example, someone once repaired by broken-down rental car out of the blue. I would reach for my wallet to pay for their service and they would demur: “No, no, no.” They felt offended because they were truly happy to help without being compensated. I suppose they were inexperienced with capitalism. That is long gone now…
LC: Your photographs are so evocative and tell whole stories in a single frame. I wonder if there is one image with a story behind it that is not obvious from your captions. If so, could you tell us a bit more?
MP: In 1998, Pope John Paul II made a five-day pilgrimage to Cuba. It was a first for a pontiff. During the trip, the Pope decided to have a personal encounter with the pain and suffering in Cuba. He visited the church of San Lazaro, next to a lepers’ hospital.
A few years earlier, I had met Jose Ponce Caraballo, a high-level Cuban diplomat. Jose was very involved in all aspects of the Pope’s historic visit.
Outside the church, Jose was telling the large army of foreign press that only two people would be able to enter the church. He selected a Cuban still photographer and TV reporter; he then told the officers manning the barrier that nobody else would have access. Luckily, I was standing next to Jose. I placed my hand on his shoulder and said, “Jose, please let me in.” He pointed at me and told the policeman, “OK, let Paganelli in too.”
This is one of the few examples I have where having the right connection at the right time was absolutely priceless.
LC: The title of your book is Cuba: A Personal Journey. When you started this series in the late ’80s, I can’t imagine you had the idea of a book in mind. How did the journey of producing this book begin? What was the moment when you decided, “Yes, I need to collect all of these years into a single, coherent publication?”
MP: Yes, at the start, I never imagined that I would publish a book—or that it would take me over 25 years to complete my work! The notion first entered my mind in the mid-90s, when many of my clients (e.g. Time, Forbes) sent me on photo assignments to Cuba. They began encouraging me to put together a book. But still, I pushed the idea away and channeled my efforts into other photo stories.
Three years ago, I started talking with a friend who is a designer, Melanie McLaughlin. She played with a few mock-ups and the idea began to gain traction. I found a publisher in New York, and everything was ready to go except the contract. Then, one day, it all fell to dust: one of the editors insisted it would be best—from a commercial point of view—to add color images. After working on the project for 25 years, that had never been my vision, so the deal was off.
Finally, we found the right partner and we were ready to go. I hired an old friend, Jimmy Colton, who is well-respected in the photo community, to work as the book’s editor. He asked me for 1,000 images, and from there he narrowed it down to 115. The book wouldn’t have been possible without him.
LC: Many images have been coming out of Cuba in the past decade or so thanks to the steady easing of travel restrictions. Given that you were there over many years, what is one thing that you feel is missing from these portrayals of the island?
MP: After the revolution, there were very few photographers in Cuba. This lasted until 1995 or so, when it started to open up slowly. And then it really took off after the Pope’s visit. He paved the way for warmer relations between the US and Cuba. After his visit, Cubans started flocking to the Roman Catholic church; Fidel even restored Christmas as a national holiday.
Today, I get emails or calls from photographers who want to participate in one of the photo workshops I hold on the island. My studio manager responds with a list of questions and one of them is, “Why do you want to visit Cuba?” Sometimes, a photographer will say, “I want to visit Cuba so I can capture things before they change.”
Honestly, our workshops cannot give anyone that opportunity—everything has already changed. These days, thousands of photographers are all traveling there for that exact reason. So, what I tell prospective participants is that Cuba is an amazing place, filled with discovery for any photographer, and that I would love to show them the country I have known for decades. But they won’t find something as idyllic as what’s in their heads…rather, each interested person should go with a passionate heart and an open mind, ready to create their own personal stories. Keep visiting over and over, and after years of searching, the soul of the nation will begin to show in your images.
—Manuello Paganelli, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ note: Cuba: A Personal Journey is out now, published by Daylight Books.
If you would like to learn more about Paganelli’s regular workshops, held in Cuba several times per year, visit his personal website.