Cuba: Photo Gallery
Most ZEKE articles feature 2-3 photographers, allowing us to show at least two images from each. But there is probably no other subject on SDN that has brought in more quality exhibits than Cuba and we have felt compelled to offer breadth here rather than depth.
Why has Cuba been such a popular subject? It is certainly not because it is easy for norteamericanos to travel there—the embargo makes sure of that. It is beautiful, as these photographs attest. But so is Panama, Costa Rica, and many other places in the Caribbean and Central America that have not produced a fraction of the submissions to SDN as Cuba. I have not been there myself, but I am fascinated by the patina of an aging infrastructure that is the backdrop to everything. But perhaps more than anything, it is the Cuban people who have held on against the relentless pressure of their northern neighbor, and have done so with dignity and grace.
Yes, Cuba has its problems. I am not an apologist for the Castro regime, but somehow this tiny island nation has produced a highly literate population that is vibrant, productive, and both physically and emotionally healthy. The infant mortality rate in Cuba is lower than the United States and is among the lowest in the world. Cuba ranks #10 in world literacy (the U.S. is 45) and has avoided the dire poverty, drug abuse, gangs, and violence that many of its Caribbean neighbors are plagued with. All this is a ripe backdrop for a documentary photographer to focus their attention on.
Walker Evans has given us some of the most memorable images of Cuba prior to the revolution in 1959. The revolution itself spurred iconic images of Castro by Raymond Burri and others. And in the intervening 75 years, many photographers have produced extraordinary work including Alex Webb and Ernesto Bazan among the most well-known.
I am thrilled to present here the work of six SDN photographers, each who have documented Cuba in their own unique vision. I only regret that we are unable to show more work of each and I encourage you to visit their full galleries on SDN to see the extent of their extraordinary work.
Open a typical travel guide to Cuba, and you’ll see pictures of grandiose squares, crumbling facades, street dogs sleeping in dusty doorways and alleys draped with dangling electrical wires. Cuba is a country frozen in time, or at least that’s what the guidebooks say. It’s a country where, according to legend, progress stopped in the 1950s, where vintage cars bump along cobblestone streets in Havana and pristine beaches stretch along the coasts.
But since the curtain began to lift between the United States and Cuba after the countries announced a renewed relationship in 2014, that romantic imagery has begun to fade. Guidebooks once described how to sneak into Cuba through Canada and how to skirt fines associated with violating the 1963 Trading with the Enemy Act that barred Americans from spending money there, now they point out shopping malls and souvenir shops. Tourists can catch a Rolling Stones concert, stay in a Starwood hotel, fly direct from Chicago or float down on Carnival Cruises. There’s no denying it: Cuba has changed.
Some say these changes are for the better. In his speech announcing that the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, President Obama argued that increased engagement with Americans through commerce, travel and free flow of information would improve the lives of the Cuban people.
“Today, the United States wants to be a partner in making the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit easier, more free, more prosperous,” Obama said in his December 17, 2014 speech.
But many fear that a sudden rush of American tourists has put a strain on the country and its tiny tourist industry. Christopher P. Baker, a travel writer and Cuba travel expert, believes that Cuba as America imagines it is already beginning to fade.
“The past two years has witnessed a massive surge in foreign visitors to Cuba. First, U.S. travelers traveling primarily on people-to-people group tours,” Baker said. “But also Europeans—especially young adults—flocking to Cuba as never before to experience it ‘before the Americans ruin it.’”
Baker and others who have a long history of traveling to Cuba before the restrictions were lifted worry that tourist towns and historical sites won’t be able to withstand the sudden influx.
“Certain core destinations, such as Trinidad and Vinales, are already beyond the tipping point of sustainability due to the throng of new visitors. In these places, the ‘innocent’ Cuba of fame is already fading into myth,” Baker said.
To understand America’s romanticization of “innocent” Cuba, it’s important to understand the nation’s long and tangled history with the U.S. Cuba became a Spanish colony after Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, and continued as one until the end of the Spanish-American War. In 1898, a defeated Spain signed the rights to its territories, including Guam, Puerto Rico and Cuba, over to the U.S. But by 1902, Cuba gained independence, with the understanding that the U.S. could intervene when it deemed necessary and that it be granted a perpetual lease on its Guantánamo Bay naval base.
Following independence, Cuba flourished with new economic development and investment from the U.S. But the country suffered from political corruption and a succession of tyrannical leaders until January 1959, when Fidel Castro overthrew President Fulgencio Batista. The U.S. initially recognized Castro’s new regime, but his communist leanings, nationalization of private land and companies, and heavy taxation of American goods led the Eisenhower Administration to levy trade restrictions on the country. From there, tensions escalated; Cuba warmed its relationship with the Soviet Union and the U.S. cut all diplomatic ties, with President Kennedy making the embargo permanent in 1962.
Cuba suffered. While its economy stalled from the sudden removal of American-made products upon which it relied, the U.S. launched a series of poorly executed missions aimed at toppling the government, from the disastrous Bay of Pigs to several attempts on Castro’s life. In 1962, tensions peaked during the Cuban Missile Crisis when U.S. spy planes discovered Soviet missiles being built on Cuban soil.
For the next 20 years, relations simmered and Cubans fled in droves to seek asylum in America. When the Soviet Union crumbled in the 1990s, the Cuban economy began to nosedive, subjecting citizens to frequent food shortages and power outages. But by the time Obama took office in 2008, America’s stance on Cuba had become rapidly outdated and unpopular both at home and abroad. The embargo had failed to change Cuba’s political system and caused needless hardship for the Cuban people. In response, Obama slowly shifted the policy on Cuba: his administration made it easier for Cuban Americans to travel and send remittances, and he spent months secretly negotiating to open relations. Finally, in December 2014, Obama announced that the two countries would restore full diplomatic relations. And in March of this year, he became the first American president since 1928, when Calvin Coolidge was in office, to visit Cuba.
The benefit of this increased engagement between the two countries is clear-—American travel to Cuba has increased 54 percent since 2014, American companies are widening their reach into Cuba, and the Cuban government has taken steps to expand internet access for its people. A new middle class of Cubans is emerging, with more ready cash than ever, spurring spending on private enterprise and consumer goods. But what isn’t clear is the long-term effect this will have on Cuban society.
According to Baker, the influx of money and American influence will undoubtedly chip away at the traditional Cuban way of life: “much of this money is being invested in businesses, but much is now being spent on conspicuous consumption items—a first for Cuba—such as iPhones and flashy watches. Values are shifting towards a monetized consumerist way of thinking that is inevitably weakening Cuba’s exemplary community and family-focused system.”
Where is the Revolution Headed?
Others worry that the changes will undo the gains of the revolution by restoring inequality and classes of “haves” and “have-nots.” But according to a report from the Pew Research Center, the Cuban government remains the source of more than 75 percent of the country’s economic activity. The communist party still rules, headed by General Raul Castro, and according to Pew, 49 percent of Americans believe that exposure to U.S. tourists and culture will do little to promote democracy in Cuba. So while Cubans now have better access to American consumer goods, pop culture and celebrity tourists, it is still a communist nation that prioritizes common effort above individual enterprise.
Has Cuba fundamentally changed? It’s far too early to tell. But we know that American attitudes towards Cuba fundamentally have: a Gallup poll from February of this year showed that for the first time, a majority of Americans have a favorable view of Cuba. Seventy-three percent of U.S. citizens approve of the thaw in relations, according to Pew. Americans are learning more about Cuba than ever before, by experiencing it first-hand as tourists or by reading about it from the flood of journalists who have entered the country since the restrictions ended.
As Obama said in his December 2014 speech, this new outlook on Cuba will benefit both countries by promoting a better understanding of the values and beliefs on both sides. “I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people, and promote our values, through engagement. After all, these fifty years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach.”
For two young boys living in New Mexico, America’s criminal justice system is about more than statistics and trends--it’s a harrowing tale of love, loss and sorrow.
Vinny and David’s story, illuminated in Los Angeles-based documentary photographer Isadora Kosofsky’s intimate portraits, begins when 13-year-old Vinny is sent to juvenile detention after stabbing his mother’s attacker. Before he’s released, his beloved 19-year-old brother David is also imprisoned for aggravated assault. Kosofsky’s photographs document Vinny and David’s lives through several years as they struggle to find stability amidst a tumultuous criminal history and troublesome home life.
The photos shed light on the realities of America’s criminal justice system, and how it affects the vulnerable population of children left behind when a loved one goes to prison. Vinny and David humanize the challenges that families and communities affected by incarceration face—the stigma, poverty, instability and inequality. Kosofsky captures, in heart-wrenching detail, the melancholy world of these two boys as they struggle to raise themselves and search for a loving and supportive family structure in each other.
We live in an era of mass incarceration in America. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 2.2 million individuals are currently in jail or prison. That amounts to 1 in 110 adults. Even more individuals—4.5 million—are currently on parole or probation.
The “war on drugs,” started in 1971 by U.S. President Richard Nixon, has had a profound effect on the American population, and disproportionately its minority population. Policies aimed at eradicating the illegal drug trade have placed millions of nonviolent offenders in prison serving often unjust and harsh sentences. But today, many are calling for reforms. According to a 2011 report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, “the global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” Now, advocates are promoting reforms that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences and focus on rehabilitation and treatment rather than incarceration. Politicians are taking up the cause--this year, the federal government announced it would phase out the use of private prisons that offer questionable benefit to public safety.
But while politicians and advocates confront the complexities of mass incarceration, often overlooked is its effect on those who remain on the outside--those left waiting at home for their father, mother, husband, son or daughter to come home.
Incarceration can be a vicious cycle, one that affects low-income communities more than others, and one that can spread like a virus within a single family or community. The problem touches men more than women, and has ballooned in recent years. In the two decades between 1980 and 2000, the number of children with a father in prison rose by 500 percent, according to the report, A Shared Sentence, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Scot Spencer, associate director of advocacy and influence at the Annie E. Casey Foundation who has worked in Baltimore and similar cities to break the incarceration cycle, believes that children like Vinny and David are placed at a significant disadvantage when a parent or guardian is incarcerated. “Almost two-thirds left behind have a difficult time meeting their basic needs…often this means that family policy decisions have to be made, like do they pay rent and forgo buying necessary medicine? Do they not buy food in order to pay utilities?”
In state and federal prisons, 45 percent of men age 24 or younger are fathers and more than half of incarcerated women in the same age group are mothers. This places a significant financial burden on families left behind, and is perhaps the largest barrier children with a parent in prison face to leading happy and successful lives. It is even more difficult for children whose incarcerated parent is the family’s breadwinner. According to A Shared Sentence, the result perpetuates poverty “from one generation to the next.” When families can’t provide basic needs like food and healthcare, children are less likely to succeed in school and grow into productive adults. They are more likely to experience housing instability, and are often sent to live with relatives or forced to relocate to more affordable homes. And this uncertainty in a child’s formative years, when they need it most, often results in longer-term insecurity.
Spencer expresses specific concern for the education of these children: “the instability in the household and in school can be really difficult--just imagine being a child and having to move from one school to another in the middle of the school year and how disruptive that might be.”
The emotional toll on children whose families are broken apart by prison sentences is also profound. According to the Sentencing Project, 59 percent of parents in state prisons and 45 percent in federal prisons have not had a personal visit with their children while incarcerated. For a child, that can be devastating. Even if a child is living in a stable environment throughout the time his or her family member is incarcerated, the stigma associated with it can have a lasting impact on their success in school and access to opportunity. Children typically fear discussing their anxieties about their incarcerated loved one, and counselors and teachers are often ill-prepared to help, according to Spencer.
Many of the solutions that advocates and concerned politicians suggest would allow children to maintain a connection with their loved ones on the inside while also receiving the support they need on the outside. Groups like the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Sentencing Project suggest that prisons need to better facilitate family visitation to allow children to see an incarcerated family member more regularly and in a less intimidating environment. Schools need to learn basic skills like how to help children affected by incarceration understand the feelings of loss, anger and anxiety they often experience. And the government could provide legal and financial advice, and other counseling services, to families while a loved one is in prison. Spencer believes, ultimately, that America has reached a critical point in its almost 50-year history of mass incarcerations brought about by the “war on drugs.” He therefore calls for a more intense focus on the broader impact of mass drug incarcerations on America’s vulnerable populations. “We need to learn lessons from what hasn’t worked and use other good examples from around the country to garner greater support for communities and families,” Spencer said. “That’s what’s really important.”
Malin Fezehai is an Eritrean-Swedish photographer and filmmaker based in New York. She focuses on issues of migration and displacement. She is a 2015 World Press Photo recipient and regularly collaborates with TIME, New Yorker, New York Times Magazine and the Malala Fund, among others.
Caterina Clerici: How did you get into photography?
Malin Fezehai: I took photography in high school. I wasn’t great in school because I am dyslexic, and when I took this photo class I remember getting really good grades without making much of an effort, so I felt it was the first thing that I was good at. After that I became obsessed with it.
CC: How did you transition into the big themes you cover — displacement, movement of people, mostly forced migration? How did your own background and personal history influence that?
MF: I grew up with a mixed background. My mother is Swedish and my father is Eritrean and in my family we are five kids with four different fathers. I have a Swedish brother and a Moroccan brother, an Egyptian brother and one full brother. So I grew up with a lot of different cultures. Also, I grew up in the suburbs in an immigrant neighborhood in Stockholm. Never having attached to one cultural identity, as a photographer I gravitate toward displaced communities. The feeling of otherness is something I feel very connected to. We live in an age where people move around a lot — I do it because I choose to do it, but for a lot of people it’s not a choice. They are forced to because of circumstances. What I find interesting is the effect being displaced has on families and communities.
CC: One of your long terms projects was about African refugees in Israel. How did you find that story and what drew you to it?
MF: I am half-Eritrean, and a lot of the refugees in Israel are from Eritrea, and the second group is Sudanese. I’ve been watching the exodus of Eritreans escaping from Eritrea and I’ve been interested in Israel for a very long time, but for my first trip I wanted to cover something other than the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. I thought this story was a very interesting third rail in the debate about the complications of Israel’s desire to maintain its demographics. I wanted to see for myself what it was like seeking refugee status in country that was in large part founded by refugees, and at the same time, it’s a status they have only given out to a handful of people who are not Jewish.
CC: You mentioned the process of ‘othering’ and how you relate to being the odd one out. Do you think there is a need to rethink the way — even in photography — that the refugee is presented as ‘the other’?
MF: It’s really complicated because you have many different groups of people fleeing for different reasons. Syrians because of the war, then you have Eritreans because of government persecution, and many other groups that get lumped together and called “economic migrants.” I think it’s challenging for the media to depict this issue in a nuanced way, and in the long run I don’t think migration is really going to come to a halt. I think it’s going to increase, and how photography is used is really important because it becomes a bridge to understanding “the other.”
In regard to the division between refugees and economic migrants — today it’s as if it wasn’t enough to just want to make a better life for yourself, you have to be running from war to justify migrating. It’s disheartening because people just want the same things you want out of life, and whatever your opinions might be on migration, I would hope that we could agree that people shouldn’t be demonized for that.
CC: Have you ever thought of covering that end of the journey — from Europe, or maybe even from Sweden? Given your experience but also your background, you would definitely have more insight than many others on a story about resettlement and all the adjustments that requires.
MF: That’s been eating on me a lot, actually. I’ve been working a lot in refugee camps and then you go over to Europe and you just see the disconnect, people don’t understand the reality on the ground. I was in Lebanon right before the refugee crisis was considered a crisis in Europe, and I myself didn’t understand the full scope of the problem.
I have thought about covering the refugee crisis and there are some things I’m researching, but I’m still trying to figure out the angle that I want to focus on. I tend to choose stories that nobody is covering, and if I were to cover a story that’s in the news a lot, I would want to find a specific angle.
My mother right now is taking care of six Afghan boys that came to Sweden unaccompanied. So it’s something that is very present in my life because when I go to see my mother, there are refugees in my own home. It’s a reality we are going to have to deal with.
I was thinking about that when I was growing up too, because [in our neighborhood] we had refugees from Kurdistan, from Iran. You look at the news and then a few years pass and you start seeing people from these places showing up in your neighborhood and living where you live. So it’s in everybody’s interests to be concerned and informed with current events.
People are alarmed about the influx of refugees to Europe but they should think about the fact that, within Africa and the Middle East, you’re dealing with migration on a much larger scale. You can look at Ethiopia, Kenya, or Lebanon, countries that have been hosting millions of refugees. So it’s important to keep perspective because poorer countries have been dealing with a mass influx of refugees for years.
CC: Your Eritrean wedding photo was the first Instagram photo to win the World Press Photo. What was it about it that made it a special picture for you?
MF: For me, it’s just a really nice moment. Here you have these refugees and they’re celebrating a marriage. When people think about refugees they think about people living in a camp or who are destitute. They certainly have their issues, but they do their best to live their lives with dignity. They made themselves look very beautiful that day, and I also like the composition of them on the stairs. These people are displaced, but in that moment they’re trying to reclaim their dignity and live their lives and celebrate a marriage, like anybody in the world would want to do.
CC: What is your thought process for Instagram? How have you, over time, realized what works and what doesn’t and how do you integrate it with your own work?
MF: I never really put a whole story I’m working on up on Instagram, I mostly put snippets of my travels. Instagram is a home to pictures that otherwise wouldn’t have a home. Every day I upload pictures that nobody would want to publish, but they are still pictures I like. It’s interesting because with Instagram you become your own outlet and your own editor.
CC: You have a huge following. What does that do to your daily life? Do you respond to the comments, are you overwhelmed? Now you have a direct connection to the audience that you didn’t used to have.
MF: I try to not reflect too much upon it. Sometimes when people feel like they’re being seen, they start changing and becoming a little more self-conscious. I want to shy away from that, because I think sometimes people do their most authentic work when they’re not thinking too much about it.
ZEKE is published by Social Documentary Network (SDN), an organization promoting visual storytelling about global themes. Started as a website in 2008, today SDN works with more than 1,500 photographers from around around the world to tell important stories through the visual medium of photography and multimedia. Since 2008, SDN has featured more than 2,000 exhibits on its website and has had gallery exhibitions in major cities around the world. All the work featured in ZEKE first appeared on the SDN website, www.socialdocumentary.net.
Fall 2016 Vol. 2/No. 2
Executive Editor: Glenn Ruga
Editor: Barbara Ayotte
Copy Editor: John Rak
Intern: Kelly Kollias
Social Documentary Network Advisory Committee
Barbara Ayotte, Medford, MA
Senior Director of Strategic Communications
Management Sciences for Health
Kristen Bernard, Salem, MA
Marketing Web Director
EBSCO Information Services
Lori Grinker, New York, NY
Independent Photographer and Educator
Steve Horn, Lopez Island, WA
Ed Kashi, Montclair, NJ
Member of VII photo agency
Photographer, Filmmaker, Educator
Reza, Paris, France
Photographer and Humanist
Jeffrey D. Smith, New York NY
Contact Press Images
Steve Walker, New York, NY
Consultant and educator
Frank Ward, Williamsburg, MA
Photographer and Educator
Jamie Wellford, Brooklyn, NY
Photo Editor, Curator
ZEKE is published twice a year by Social Documentary Network
Copyright © 2016
Social Documentary Network
Print ISSN 2381-1390
Digital ISSN: Forthcoming
ZEKE does not accept unsolicited submissions. To be considered for publication in ZEKE, submit your work to the SDN website either as a standard exhibit or a submission to a Call for Entries. Contributing photographers can choose to pay a fee for their work to be exhibited on SDN for a year or they can choose a free trial. Free trials have the same opportunity to be published in ZEKE as paid exhibits.
Cover photo by David Verberckt. From The Stateless Rohingya. Children playing in makeshift refugee camp for Rohingya from Myanmar. Shamplapur, Bangladesh, June 2015.