The plight of Cuba is close to the Western psyche. Fidel Castro, Havana, old cars, the embargo, tobacco, and communism are all a very real part of American history. Only 90 miles separate America and Cuba, but other than the aforementioned cultural clichés (all connected to Havana), little else is known of the rest of the island. With his forthcoming book Campesino Cuba, Richard Sharum sets out to document the underrepresented majority of Cuba.
Sharum grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, a city once listed by Cuba as a potential target during the Cuban missile crisis. Having been raised in a multi-ethnic home and neighborhood, his early experiences cultivated empathy for the under-represented, a virtue that became a guide for his photographic practice. In 2016, Sharum began traveling to Cuba to begin the work that would become Campesino Cuba.
His interest in documenting the campesino—which can be roughly translated to ‘farmer’—way of life comes at a time of social change in rural Cuba. Informed by the internet, a younger generation of campesinos are leaving behind centuries old traditions for the attraction of modernity and the financial opportunity found in urban centers. With the majority of the island being rural, the campesino way of life has traditionally been the backbone of Cuban culture. In Campesinos Cuba, Sharum documents a group on the verge of change.
Undeterred by his inability to speak Spanish, Sharum found himself in the Sierra Maestra mountains of southeast Cuba. Like the rest of the island, this region has seen little evolution in agricultural practices and infrastructure since the 1950s. The houses are simple wood construction and the floors are often dirt. Windows do not have window panes and doorways do not have doors. The roadways are of dirt and can quickly turn to mud. Washing is done in the rivers and clothes hung to dry on rustic clotheslines strung across dirt yards. Although life is simple and the work is hard, Sharum found the people to be happy, warm, welcoming. Under communist rule, education is free, healthcare is a fundamental right, and the rights the campesinos have to their land and harvest is well protected.
In Campesino Cuba, men and women toil over mountainous terrain with simple hand tools, cultivating and harvesting tobacco, cassava, corn, fish, potatoes, coffee, and sugar cane. When not in the fields, people rest in shade, travel to the city on errands, travel to the river to bathe, make meals together, go to school. The hot, humid Caribbean sun blazes overhead, only ever giving way to the tropical rains that water the fields and wash the dust off the mountains. In an essay in the book describing the history and plight of the campesino people, Cuban writer Domingo Cuza Pedrera notes that, “no one depends more on nature, nor is so afraid of its excesses, than the campesino.” Sharum’s intimate photographs of the people at rest and at work in rural Cuba echo that sentiment.
Sharum’s first book is a record of a disappearing way of life, pieced together through the everyday rhythms of the campesino people, and enriched by a number of accompanying interviews with the people he met along the way.Editor’s note: Campesino Cuba is set to be published by GOST Books in Spring 2021, and you can help make it happen through Richard’s Kickstarter campaign.