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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Photographing Castro's Cuba-Fascination and Frustration

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Lingering impressions of Havana:

The softness of Fidel Castro's handshake as he made his way up the aisle of Jesse Jackson's plane. These are the hands of a bank clerk, I thought, not of a revolutionary. But what did I know? Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan rebel leader, whom I'd also seen on this trip, looked like somebody's younger brother.

The sweep of Havana's skyline from my room in the Havana Libre, the old tourist mecca that mobster Meyer Lansky was supposed to have favored back in the pre-embargo '50s. But whatever similarity Havana may have had to Miami or St. Thomas was overwhelmed by the stink of the mildew in my carpet, the rust from the water pipes, and the non-existent air-conditioning.

The drugstore a few blocks from the hotel was bereft of nearly everything in the way of patent medicines and the other consumer goods we take for granted. To fill the empty spaces someone had strewn plastic flowers in the display cabinets, among the few remaining medicine bottles. The flowers had been there so long they were covered in dust.

Of all the political travel I did for 20 years as a reporter on the New York Daily News, that 1984 trip with then-presidential candidate Jesse Jackson was the most remarkable, the most frustrating, the most fascinating. Jackson, ever the maverick and thorn in the side of regular Democrats, made the trip at Fidel Castro's invitation as a self-described "peace mission." And during the week-long magical mystery tour, we hit Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Cuba. We returned to Dulles airport outside of Washington with very special souvenirs: 48 Cuban prisoners whom Castro had freed as a goodwill gesture, including political dissidents and small-time drug dealers.

[My own personal souvenirs included $100 worth of Cuban cigars, but that's another story.]

Traveling in the Third World, especially on such a loosely organized campaign as Jackson's, was light years removed from the plush, programmed, photo-op'd excursions of Ronald Reagan or even Jimmy Carter. Jackson's campaign, which was at best a seat-of-the pants adventure stateside, was even more so in places where the pressing concern for most folks was finding the next meal or staying on the good side of the hopelessly young fatigue-wearing companeros who carried automatic weapons. But if places like Nicaragua and El Salvador radiated palpable anti-American feelings at us traveling newsies, Havana offered a surprising (to me anyway) warmth and acceptance.

I loved the place. Its vibrant, friendly people, the bright colors amid the drab exteriors, its benign weather, its seemingly constant music.

Is it any wonder that Cuba – so alien, yet so close to our shores – has fascinated photographers, writers and other artists even before President Kennedy turned the island into forbidden fruit with the stroke of a pen?

For years, access to Cuba was severely limited, open only to dollar-carrying expatriate Cubans, or to scholars and journalists. But inevitably – and with the crumbling of the Soviet Union, Cuba's longtime meal ticket – those restrictions are lessening. Who knows, maybe one day the ridiculous trade embargo will vanish as well, probably to coincide with Fidel's death.

Until that time, however, getting to Cuba will require more than a plane ticket and a passport. Which is why the Maine Photographic Workshops' "Assignment: Cuba, 2001" set for early next year offers a wonderful opportunity for serious photographers and experienced travelers to document this still-fascinating island before it loses – as one suspects it must – its edgy and exciting visual punch.

The Maine Workshops is a different place than it was 15 years ago when I went there as a student. I saw the changes two summers ago, when I returned as a guest lecturer and author. For a while, in the late '80s and early '90s, founder David Lyman's brainchild seemed to be catering more to commercial photographers and filmmakers (the latter in the International Film and Television Workshops). But over the years, it seems as if the photography dearest to my heart – documentary photography and location portraiture – has enjoyed a deserved rebirth. Nowhere is that more in evidence than in the fledgling Cuba program, begun a year ago and enjoying remarkable success, even with the inevitable shakedown glitches that can plague any program, much less one in Castro's Cuba.

Consider this mere sampling of the talent that will be teaching during a 12-week series of master classes next February, March and April (and for the sake of brevity, imagine the phrase "award-winning" before every name):

David Alan Harvey, National Geographic staff
James Nachtwey, Magnum photographer
Susan Meiselas, former MacArthur Fellow
Alex Webb, Magnum shooter, NEA Fellow
Sarah Leen, National Geo contract shooter
Stan Grossfeld, associate editor, Boston Globe, former Nieman Fellow
And many, many more.

You get the picture. Most master classes are one to two-week sessions. Tuition, not including airfare or accommodations, runs between $990 and $1,495. By my calculation of the costs listed in the program's brochure, one should figure on spending around $3,000 (plus meals and airfare) for a typical stay. That includes lodging, film processing, visas and credentials.

Give David Lyman credit. He has pulled this program through what must have been a thicket of regulations and red tape so that MPW and its accredited Rockport College have been granted a U.S. government license to conduct "educational and cultural" programs and to provide U.S. citizens with authorized access to Cuba.

I almost can hear David in the frank caveat listed in the course brochure:

"There will be technical problems [in Cuba], language difficulties, frustrations with customs, uncooperative officials, problems with labs and film processing, but as experienced photographers we expect you will see these as challenges and solve them on your own."

By welcome contrast, photographer David Middleton, who taught in the Cuba workshops last winter and who is returning next year, noted in his journal: "The people are Cuba's most valuable natural resource. They are far and away the most friendly, welcoming and genuine people I have ever metů . Cuba is a country of hearts, strong legs, old bones and empty pockets."

For information see the Web site: www.theworkshops.com/cuba; or call toll-free 877-577-7700.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Joan Lyons
A '50s era Chevy painted gold sits at a curb in Old Havana.

Joe Guerriero
A taxi driver uses his mascot to attract customers.

street scene
Karen Keating
Engaging portrait of a child in the barrio.

Karen Keating
Evocative figure study.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

'Magical' Pix With Hassy's SWC/M

The Perfect Camera System

The Odd Genius Who Froze Motion

The Day I Shot Aaron and DiMaggio

When Technology Weakens Technique

The Ultimate Point n' Shoot

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