In 2016, photographer Michael Christopher Brown was on holiday in Trinidad when Fidel Castro died. When he heard the news, he immediately traveled to Cuba. He had already been working in the country since 2014 and had cultivated government contacts that made it possible for him to secure a press pass so that he could cover the events surrounding Fidel’s death. He found a driver and decided to try to join the funeral cortege as it made its way from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, a route mirroring Fidel’s post-revolution journey from Santiago to Havana in 1959. Writing in the introduction to Brown’s new book, “Yo Soy Fidel” (Damiani, 2018), Martin Parr recounts how it happened:
“So, with his hand-made press signs taped to the side of the windows and flashing hazard lights . . . Michael leaned out of the rear driver’s side window and over the hood, photographing while his car sped cross-country.”
The result is an extraordinary document of a momentous time in history, with a photographic approach unlike anyone else covering the event. In Sight spoke to Brown about the work, and this is what he had to say:
“Chuck Close perhaps rightly said that photography is the only art form in which there are accidental masterpieces. A good photographic monograph is something else, perhaps more a product of serendipity. I like to plan things and appreciate well-planned conceptual photography projects, but that has never been me. I work best when free and on the road, following my nose. Usually when I let go of the organized mind and think with the gut and the heart, it leads to more interesting work.
I’d been in Cuba doing just that for a couple of years, following a group of youth into electronica music and L-Dopa, a Parkinson’s drug. I didn’t know why I was attracted to them, but they gave me an understanding of the country that was necessary to making “Yo Soy Fidel.” By the time Fidel died, I already had a feeling for the people, an understanding on their history and an idea of how the place worked. Without this knowledge, the care to see these pictures would not have been possible. And I would not have been so bold, so confident in the process and so interested in the faces beyond the various Cuba-isms.
As this book is ultimately not about Fidel but about Cubans, another title for it could have been “Soy Cuba,” after the Kalatozov film. It was the Cubans who stood beside the road in the dress they chose to wear, with the posture they chose to adopt, in the place they chose to stand, watching the man who made so many decisions for them pass for the last time. It was the Cubans, not Fidel, who in the end were left standing, to now decide the fate of their country.”
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