In late November 2016, photographer Michael Christopher Brown was asleep in Trinidad, Cuba, when he woke up to a phone call. On the other end of the line was someone from Magnum Photos’ Paris office, and Brown sensed the gravity in their tone when they asked if he was available immediately for an assignment. Still half-asleep, he asked Magnum to email him the details. His partner Lauryn, who was staying with him in Cuba at the time, remembers Brown saying something to the effect of, “Only something really urgent, like Fidel’s death, could keep me out of bed.”
Of course, that’s exactly what had occurred, and Magnum was calling to see if Brown was available to photographically document the aftershock. Brown quickly found himself enmeshed in an historic country-wide mourning process: for nine days, any entertainment unrelated to the revolution was banned, along with alcohol, music and dancing. A “Freedom Caravan” was announced, which would retrace the “Victory Caravan” from 1959, when Fidel and his revolutionaries crossed the island delivering speeches and waving to cheering crowds. Now, his remains would take a similar journey, and although international press was banned from accompanying the caravan, Brown resolved to follow along anyway.
The resulting collection of images is a potent and revealing portrait of a country that is in the process of redefining itself without its charismatic leader. Brown captures a range of emotions in his photographs—some Cubans wave energetically, huge smiles on their faces, while others stand stony-faced, staring back at Brown’s camera. Since Brown traveled on the route itself (more on that below), his images present us with a remarkable survey of life in Cuba: citizens of all different ages, from different localities, stand against similar backdrops that unify them. This familiar composition allows us to focus on their faces, comparing and contrasting reactions across the country.
Almost 50 years after Paul Fusco documented Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral procession, Brown offers us an echo of this phenomenon in Cuba. While Fusco shot his iconic images from the moving train that carried Kennedy’s body from New York City to Arlington, Virginia, where he would be buried, so too did Brown follow Castro’s remains. Over the course of four days, Brown leaned over the roof (or out the window) of an SUV as it drove the route from Havana to Santiago, the capital of the region where Castro was born.
Yo Soy Fidel is currently on view in Arles, France, as part of Les Rencontres d’Arles. Brown worked with exhibition designer Ramon Pez to create a show that keenly references the photographer’s experience of Cuba. Small details that I had initially walked by without a thought—like the rough-hewn cement steps and fluorescent lights—took on new meaning as Brown unraveled his conception and construction during our conversation on a hot summer day in Arles.
LensCulture: To start us off, can you tell me more about what it felt like to make this series of photographs? People from all over Cuba came out to watch Fidel Castro’s remains pass by.
Michael Christopher Brown: Well the event itself, called the “Freedom Caravan,” was the reverse of Fidel’s 1959 “Victory Caravan” from Santiago to Havana, after he defeated the forces of President Batista. Most Cubans work for the government in some capacity, and we learned that government workers, students, military, etc were all told to wait along the road for the Caravan. People stood in front of their homes or businesses or on street corners, and the government brought people into the countryside from the towns and cities in order to spread as many folks as possible along the 1000km route. So there were few sections of the road without people.
Cubans were told the day on which the Caravan would pass, but not the time, so many of them waited by the side of the road all day to watch the Caravan pass for several seconds. Local party members and community organizers were leading cheers, which were often “Yo Soy Fidel!” Emotion among the people ran the gamut, from the hardcore Fidelistas and true believers to the counterculture and youth who were there, if anything, to just experience history. It was important to me that my documentation be balanced. For me, it wasn’t about who was right and who was wrong. It was about showing a range: here are the people who love Fidel, here are the people who are indifferent, and here are the people who are just exhausted from waiting.
In terms of what we experienced, besides a handful of Cuban reporters and photographers who were allowed to ride atop a giant truck just in front of the Caravan, no foreign press was granted official access to the route. We were told it would be impossible, as the security forces, the military, the police and their equivalent of the secret service had closed the route to all traffic. I had found a car and a driver—a former semi-truck driver who knew many of the side roads surrounding the route. And I figured that the further we were from Havana, the more possibilities there might be for us to access the route.
I had a Cuban press pass from Havana and had made press signs for the SUV. We turned the blinking hazard lights on and approached a police officer blocking the route on that first afternoon. I was leaning out the rear window and over the hood of the SUV taking pictures in order to look somewhat official, albeit perhaps a bit ridiculous. The officer radioed in our request to his superior and we were shocked and elated to be granted access onto the route.
Our presence along the route created some confusion, as we had to be either in front or behind the Caravan, driving down the center of the road. Sometimes people reacted and cheered as if we were part of the Caravan, while other times they would stand in silence, and I would hear someone read our signs and say “La Prensa,” “the press,” as we passed. That first day while out in front of the Caravan, the driver exclaimed, “They must think you are the most important photographer in the world, to be out in front of the Caravan, in front of Fidel!”
LC: The photographs fromYo Soy Fidel are currently on view in Arles. How did you decide to hold the exhibition above a Monoprix—a functioning supermarket on the outskirts of the city?
MCB: Well, it was not our decision; there were a couple of locations in Arles that Les Rencontres d’Arles thought we could use for the show. When they decided on Monoprix, the French department store, Ramon [Pez, the exhibition designer and curator] and I thought it was a great fit as there was potential to create a beneficial relationship between the content, structure and environment surrounding the show.
We immediately thought the name “Monoprix” was interesting as it means “one voice” or “one price,” which may allude to—among other things—Fidel’s one party system or his aversion to consumerism! Then there were a number of qualities we felt helped give a more Cuban experience to the show: the store itself is a bit distant from the center of Arles, so you have to walk in the summer heat, and then you have to walk through the aisles on the first floor of the store, passing between the Panama hats and Havaianas sandals, before reaching a set of stairs to the second floor, which is ordinarily a storage space for store products.
LC: How did the unique qualities of the space impact the design of the exhibition?
MCB: Before you enter the show, sometimes you have to wait with the fire marshal downstairs, as there is a 45 person limit. So you have the walking and waiting (in Cuba they say, “we spend our time walking, waiting and talking”) then once you’re in the space, it is hot, without air conditioning, and there are cheap fluorescent shop lights—ubiquitous in Cuba, but imperfect viewing lights for prints. So! Especially the shadowy areas of the photographs, the details, are not easily seen and sometimes opaque, as some Cubans feel living under Fidel’s system. The heat made it difficult for people to stay upstairs for long—also very Cuban.
Ramon designed wooden walls, where the construction was unfinished, as a nod to Fidel’s revolution, and these walls created a winding route that felt like the journey the Caravan made through the countryside. The sequence of photographs was loosely chronological, beginning in Havana and ending in Santiago.
LC: Do you feel that your prior experience in Cuba impacted the images you shot for Yo Soy Fidel? If so, how are they different?
MCB: Definitely! In a way I was lucky, because I’d been working in Cuba for a couple of years, documenting what life was like for a group of young people involved in the electronic music scene. So during this trip, I was less distracted by the Cuban-isms—the fancy antique cars, the cigars etc—that I might have been otherwise. I became more focused on the expressions of the people and then suddenly, what I was attempting to do with the youth was presented to me over a period of several days, evident in the appearance and expression of the folks standing along the route.
Most of the decisions about composition and timing seemed readymade. The Cubans stood how and where they wanted to stand, in the clothes they wanted to wear, with the expressions they chose to express. We could not stop while driving down the center of the road; we drove at a certain speed, not too fast or too slow, to seem credible to the security forces.
As we were constantly moving while on the road, I needed to use a certain shutter speed and aperture in order to take direct, sharp pictures that emphasized the faces in the crowd. To photograph people on both sides of the road, I positioned myself above the hood at the center of the SUV. This was apparently roughly the same height that Fidel was when he stood in his jeep greeting the crowds during the 1959 Victory Caravan.
So the experience felt like I had made a portrait of the country, but one that was produced by the Cubans themselves. I just pressed the shutter button.
LC: The photos offer an incredible spectrum of ages and faces…did you see much economic diversity?
MCB: The Cubans in these photographs are largely the common folk—the farmers and laborers from the small towns and countryside. There were some elite at the big rallies in the cities, mainly in Havana and Santiago, though I rarely saw them along the road.
LC: You photograph a lot of young people—in Cuba, in the US, in Libya—and you’ve been present in moments of revolution. What do you come away with?
MCB: I guess an awareness of the power of the public. Also, with communal realizations like Fidel’s death, there’s an acknowledgement that the revolution died with him, as did a piece of all Cubans—”Yo Soy Fidel,” I am Fidel—however much they believed in him.
Revolutions are often fought by younger elements of society. Fidel was young when he and his revolutionaries took over Cuba, and in Libya it was largely the youth who carried the uprising.
LC: How do you consider your position—photojournalist—in a revolution?
MCB: When I work as a photojournalist, I’m interested in monitoring power—though without an agenda. I just try to collect my reactions to the experiences.
LC: I know you’re currently working in the Middle East—are you approaching that subject matter with a similar ethos?
MCB: I actually just returned from Israel/Palestine. I’ve worked in some of the surrounding countries, but I never felt the motivation to go until this year, sparked by Trump’s decision to move the embassy. But I’m not working as a photojournalist, not on assignment and not in a political/news sense, though I have experienced some events. I’m more interested in a kind of mystical intrigue of Jerusalem and surroundings. It seems less about what is happening there and more about a deep sense of exploration, which relates to the inner work I’ve been doing this past year. So I’m not working in the usual sense; I’m not taking sides or going in there with an agenda.
LC: When it comes to revolution, what do you think people are seeking in those situations? What feelings or desires or needs are motivating them?
MCB: Well to have a working state, all people must be integrated into the political process. We were discussing Libya earlier, and there were people at the protests there holding signs that said “I am a man.” Those people had, at least temporarily, won their dignity by fighting for the realization that they were their country.
In Cuba, as I wrote in Yo Soy Fidel, the Freedom Caravan was just as much about the people as it was about Fidel. But the Cubans did not realize in that moment that they had this agency and power: it was not the right time. It was about their recognition of Fidel and his revolution, and perhaps their memory of the hopes he gave to Cubans in 1959.
LC: Finally, both Libyan Sugar and Yo Soy Fidel focus on everyday people. For someone like me, who has never been to Libya or Cuba, that work feels important: at least I’m able to see a photo of someone and think, “they look my age” or “that girl looks like my niece.” At the end of the day, what impact do you hope your images have?
MCB: It’s hard to pierce through the noise. As I mentioned before, I see similar themes of revolution all over the world. At the end of the day, I know my photos [themselves] won’t change anything. What can change the world are mass movements or points in history driven by large groups.
But what would happen if no one was out in other countries sending back imagery or video? However much you can argue against the “impact” of photography or photojournalism, I do believe that my photographs connect people. If I may provide a way to relate, to connect to a situation through imagery, experiences and thoughts, then I’ve done my job. I don’t go to places thinking I may change things. I go for my own interest, and if it inspires others to feel something for a situation, great.