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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Cuba: Taking Strong Exception

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

"Mr. Van Riper," the e-mail began, "It may be, as you say in your article on this subject, that the Cuban trade embargo is 'ridiculous': it has failed to bring down Castro and provides him with a much abused excuse for Cuba's disastrous economic situation. But at least overthrowing a dictatorship is a worthy objective. Instead, this Cuban photographic workshop that you are helping advertise, and which is, at best, a naive enterprise; and at worst, a propaganda project, will, in either case, help validate the Castro regime. In the latter case, bad faith is the motivation, and in the former, the cause is a profound ignorance."

The writer, who said his first name is Luis, gave an address in McLean, Va. Perhaps he is a Cuban refugee. Or perhaps his parents had to live under Castro before fleeing to the U.S. For all I know his family has lived here for generations. That doesn't matter. What does matter is his message: that, in promoting and writing about the Maine Photographic Workshops' upcoming series of master classes in Cuba, I am giving aid and comfort to tyranny.

These charges are ridiculous. Unfortunately, however, my reader demonstrates the kind of hostility and paranoia one often finds when people are driven to extremes in their fervently held beliefs.

And yet, I venture to say that if Luis and I ever were to meet and sit down over a cerveza or two, we would find we have far more in common when it comes to Cuba than he might imagine.

"How can you believe," my correspondent says, "how can anybody with the slightest knowledge of totalitarian dictatorships in the twentieth century believe, that this workshop will offer, as you put it, 'a wonderful opportunity for serious photographers and experienced travelers to document this [still fascinating] island'? Such 'documentation' is not possible under a dictatorship, unless you are thinking of projects such as the 'A Day in the Life of....' series of books, some pretty and pretty shallow pictures. Because the only pictures your 'serious photographers' will be allowed to take are of the type seen in such books and in the sampling in your article: some graceful people, old cars, etc. This type of photography ("unconcerned" photography?) should be easy in Cuba, because, as somebody once said, poverty is picturesque. And in this sense at least, Castro has been spectacularly successful: Cuba is so very picturesque that it breaks your heart."

In his fervid e-mail, Luis exudes the absolutism that true-believers of any stripe exhibit whenever anyone has the temerity to put a human face on a regime/politician/country they hate, or have come to hate because of its system. And who am I to say Luis doesn't have good reason?

Still, I find it hard to believe that my correspondent really thinks photographs of a crumbling Havana somehow "validate the Castro regime." Or that tales of food and medical shortages–of the type I alluded to in my column, and which all who travel to Cuba come back with–reflect well on the man who once was Moscow's Poster Boy for world revolution.

Is there anyone with walking around sense who thinks Fidel Castro has improvedthe Cuban economy, rather than driven it into the ground while soaking up as much Soviet aid as humanly possible when it was available?

No, what rankles Luis and so many other anti-Castroites is that there are people in that nation of pobrecitos who, despite all their hardship, are making a life for themselves. People, who with memories long enough to recall the corruption of the previous regime, actually feel they are better off with the devil they know in Fidel.

What would Luis make, I wonder, of a fascinating new book, Popular, by French-born fashion photographer Thierry Le Goues (PowerHouseBooks, $75). The book's title is meant to be pronounced in Spanish (Pope-oo-LAR) after the ubiquitous Cuban cigarette. In an utterly wordless collection of 220 mostly color images, Le Goues provides a stunning look at a vibrant, sensuous people at work and at play‹reflecting great joy amidst great poverty. He also comes up with some simply gorgeous cityscapes, most of them of decrepit, falling down buildings, to be sure, but beautiful in their own way nonetheless. There is a raw energy throughout this book that belies the popular stereotype of a downtrodden people who live under the thumb of Castro's Policia, or of ratfink members of the neighborhood political watch.

In all likelihood, readers like Luis would not like this book. The people look too damn happy.

Yet, ironically, Luis would have some company in his presumed dislike in the person of Fidel Castro.

A few weeks ago Cuba banned the import of Popular, saying "themes represented in the book do not accurately reflect the achievements of the revolution."

And that's the conundrum of freedom. Different people see different things or the same things differently. Luis and others like him are dead wrong when they accuse projects like the Maine Workshops' "Assignment Cuba" of "validating" a regime when all they are doing is reporting on it. Fidel Castro is dead wrong if he thinks that in this age, he is going to be able to isolate his country from more-open systems, much less control what people see, hear and read.

With rare exceptions, like North Korea, we really are a global village, connected even more so by the Internet and the lightning fast exchange of words, ideas and images that no politician or dictator can stifle.

That's why the Maine Workshops' project is a good one. That's why readers like Luis, well meaning and fervent though they may be, are wrong.

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.

Frank Van Riper Archive:

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Pat Fisher's Stamp of Approval

The Frustrating Genius of Edward Steichen

Stephen King, Photography Teacher

Pulitzer Pictures: Capturing the Moment

Extending the Holidays

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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