Lensman Michael Chinnici’s Cuban Odyssey

In his coffee table book, Vanishing Cuba, the American photographer mirrors the realities of a modernising Cuba in vivid and voluminous detail.

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Titled “Vanishing Sun”, Chinnici’s evening shot features the five-mile-long sea wall, the Malecón.

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Dozens of trips, and thousands of photographs later, Michael Chinnici has framed Cuba in a way many outsiders, and Cubans, have never experienced the mysterious and mesmerising island nation. Intriguingly anecdotal and assiduously thorough, Chinnici’s coffee table book, which we discuss at N.Y.C.’s The Jane Hotel, heeds the trappings that come with documenting the relatively closed-off nation and all the colourful Caribbean clichés that appear easy to fall into—especially through the eyes of an American.

A child who hid under his school desk during Cuban Missile Crisis drills, decades later, Chinnici approaches documenting the country in a refreshingly unclouded manner. He puts the Cuban people and their stories at the forefront of his fascinating forays, focusing on the lives of ballerinas and boxers—some of the few civilians that can travel outside of the nation without connections or affluence—bygone markets, far-flung cities seemingly lost in time, and ‘the elegant crumble’ of family-owned restaurants and neoclassic structures.

So many of the people and places Chinnici dialled his camera in on have passed on from the streets they once defined; but they are remembered in his book, which ensures the dichotomy of Cuba’s changing society is imprinted in the minds of those curious enough to discover skillfully-curated snippets of its everyday life. Flipping through the pages of Vanishing Cuba, you see more than surface-level subjects. Touching stories and amity fill the spreads, encouraging the reader to take a closer look at a country little known to most of the world beyond its name.

 

Our Man In Havana

Clockwise from top left: Spotting the Cuban flag on a boxer under the Caribbean sun; Markets which once sold produce and meat with socialismo painted over walls are slowly vanishing; Che Guevara’s legacy lives on through La Poderosa, the motorcycle that took the revolutionary around South America.

 

What first spurred you to travel to Cuba?

I grew up in New York during the Cold War. When the Cuban Missile Crisis happened, I was in elementary school, and we had these air raid drills where we would have to dive under our desks and it was frightening. The mindset of that time, Cuba was a very bad, bad, bad place. There was this preconceived thought throughout much of my young adult life that this was a place Americans would never see again and we never really studied it. It was completely off limits. Then, of course, you see pictures, and you’re fascinated by the historical beauty and the nostalgic cars; and when you become mature enough you realise, ‘Oh my god, this is a place lost in time.’ As I travelled more and more, as I got older, Cuba grew on my bucket list, and it was like, ‘How can I do this and do it successfully, and from a photographic stand point?’ Between 2013 to 2020, I made 24 trips (to Cuba). A lot of trips.

 

On your initial trips to Cuba, did you find it intimidating trying to capture the pulse of a country so many outsiders have preconceptions about, but relatively few have experienced over a sustained period of time?

No. Cubans immediately made me feel comfortable. Everything was comfortable. The language barrier was a non-issue. You have to remember that Cubans have a long relationship with the United States. We helped them get freedom from Spain, and even occupied them for a couple of years.  Sometimes it can feel like there’s almost more Cubans in Miami than in Havana. So, there’s this affinity with the U.S. and you feel it.

 

Our Man In Havana

A slice of Cuban heritage can be found at unexpected places—authentic meals at home-turned-eateries called paladares (top) or in Trinidad (bottom), where an Afro-Cuban community preserves the 500-year-old Valley of Sugar Mills.

When one imagines a coffee table book about Cuba, the mind already conjures up notional vignettes of bright-coloured Bel Airs and the elegant crumble of baroque buildings, but the additional focus on ballet and boxing sets your photography apart. Why was it so important for you to bring these professionals into the foreground?

It was important to me, and it just naturally happened through opportunity. I could have had (photographed) a cabaret dancer, which is also iconic to Cuba. There’re a lot of iconic things that I made sure not to put in the book because they were cliché, like making a chapter on cars. What people don’t always have the opportunity to photograph are these young ballerinas, and the same with boxers. Up until a few years ago, a Cuban couldn’t travel from one place to another. You needed permission to travel or move from one province to another. Now that’s changed. Yet most Cubans have never seen their own country. They’ve never seen many of the locations in this book. I know so many Cubans who say, ‘Oh my god, I really want to go there one day,’ yet I’ve had the privilege to go numerous times. Then you look at the boxers and ballerinas, who’ve had far more mobility to travel. In Cuba, unless you have a Spanish passport, or family abroad, you are not able to get a visa. This is only for the privileged. So as a ballerina, if you’re selected by the National Ballet, you can travel all over the world and perform. If you’re a boxer you can compete in championships in other countries. So, it’s not just a sport, but a ticket to see the rest of the world.

 

The amount of detail and evocative storytelling that goes into how you frame your street photography borders on the uncanny at some points. For example, the sight of a sidecar motorcycle, painted with the name La Poderosa (the name of Che and Alberto’s Norton bike in The Motorcycle Diaries). How did you react to moments like this, impossible to stage?

While I was shooting this boxer I looked over at the wall and saw these shadows. They were so strong—the sun is so strong in the Caribbean. I said, ‘Can you stand over here?’ because I really wanted the lines to cross his body. But it wasn’t until he stepped into the picture and I pulled the camera up, that I said, ‘Oh my god, this looks like the Cuban flag.’

Sometimes things are noticed afterwards, like the La Poderosa shot. I took that picture, and for five years it was just a picture of a family riding on a sidecar motorcycle on a Sunday. It wasn’t until I read the words that I said, ‘Wait a minute. That’s the name of the motorcycle that Che Guevara and his friend drove up through South America. Just before Che changed the course of his life and joined Fidel in Cuba to fight in the revolution. Now I understand the significance of this. Maybe he’s a communist revolutionary or maybe the previous owner was, or maybe he just admires Che…’ That’s a great story to tell with the image.

 

Your photograph “Waiting for the Barber” is one of my favourite compositions. The unwavering expressions of those men waiting at the barber slow down time, really letting the viewer savour that moment. How did you manage to ask their permission to take the photo without losing the dynamism of the moment?

It was Sunday morning in Central Havana, and the shutters of these windows were slightly open—because people leave the windows open all day so the air flows through—and I looked inside and I saw these three young men getting haircuts. I lifted my camera, made eye contact, they nodded, and I took the picture. That’s how I captured that moment, I froze that moment without losing the intimacy. You really can’t lose that intimacy, it’s very special.

 

Our Man In Havana

An intimate recollection of a frozen moment with the locals at a barber shop.

 

Also Read | The Rousing Rhythms of Rum and Sun-Drenched Cuba

 

It appears Havana’s Malecón esplanade enchanted you the most as a landscape. Walk us through how important the Malecón is to the city?

The Malecón is a five-mile sea wall. It’s huge, really long, and it protects central Havana from the ocean. If you go to Havana on any Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night, there are thousands of people hanging out there. It’s really the centre of life in Havana, hanging out along the sea wall, and so, yeah, it’s a pretty special place.  The life and energy and, of course, it’s just magically positioned for beautiful sunsets and sunrises.

 

Any particular techniques you’ve developed over your tenure as a photographer?

I remember when I first started doing photography, I’d wait for people to walk out of the scene, and now I wait for people to walk into the scene. And I embrace that, and sometimes I strike up a conversation, even if I don’t know the language well. Laughing with strangers and capturing their intimacy is really what documentary storytelling is all about.

One of the things I often do with children is let them play with my cameras. It also helps create a comfort level and bond their parents or friends. And it’s fun, I show them pictures that they took, and I take their picture, and you end up with this wonderful camaraderie.

Our Man In Havana

Unfinished highway bridges are a symbol of the dissolved Soviet expansion in Cuba. Today, only 32 remain.

What drew you to the ritual of market life in Cuba and why do you think the marketplace is such a popular canvas for revolutionary slogans and portraiture?

Who doesn’t love a great market? I mean India has the best market life.

In Cuba, what do people need more than anything? It’s food and water, and where do they get it? In Cuba they get it using a ration card, which used to be good for one month but now it’s good for maybe ten days. These markets provide food that you can’t get on the ration card. The market you go into is either going to be a government market or a private one.

The government markets often have revolutionary messaging. Why? It’s because, you know, be thankful for us. We brought you this harvest. It’s subliminal. I say it’s subliminal because you go into the market and don’t think twice about it. But in this case, it’s right there in your face.

My photo socialismo (mural) is a government market, but now it’s gone. It’s been repainted white and with new lighting. It’s beautiful. So much nicer for the Cubans. But for me, as a photographer, it no longer has the character and soul I once captured. It could be anywhere in the Caribbean.

 

You seem to be as interested in the interiors of classic Cuban cabs and cars as you are with their, typically, more popularly photographed exteriors. Was this a style of shooting you developed in Cuba?

I love to photograph environmental portraits and street photography. They often tell a story. One of the things I teach about photography is ‘the art of seeing.’ No matter where you are, there are always hundreds of photos to take. The question is, which photo do you take?

Referring to cars, I shot the Fairlane (in Vanishing Cuba) from the back because the tail lights and the wings are so cool. I decided to focus on only one side of the cars details and incorporate Central Havana in the background, so it adds context and creates more intrigue. Of course, the wide lens allows you to do that, but you can achieve it from a distance too. So, it’s a matter of the art of seeing, focusing on what makes it or its surroundings interesting.

Our Man In Havana

An appreciation for handy-work to fix things—be it fridges (right) or cars (top and bottom)—is the secret to product longevity on the Caribbean island.

 

You’ve eaten in many of Cuba’s crumbling yet elegant paladares, homestyle restaurants often set in grand yet somewhat dilapidated architectural marvels. Can you take us through some of those dining experiences?

In the early 1990s the Cuban government issued licenses for paladares (home restaurants). You could cook out of your home and serve food. The early paladares were really about home cooking. When I first went to Cuba, in 2013, many had tables in the living room and dining room. And when I went to use the bathroom, I would find toothbrushes and toothpaste. Now, many have become so successful that they have expanded and turned their homes into restaurants. The more you go into the countryside, the more you experience the paladares’ feel. There’s a pig roast, everything is authentic.

 

What’s it like seeing old-school American manufacturing—in addition to the classic cars, I’m talking about that photo of the beautifully textured and behemoth GE fridge that’s been working for 82 years—chugging along in the relatively cut-off crumbling beauty of Cuba.

I’ve been to that house 20 times. I’ve seen that fridge 20 times. Turns out, it’s a 1939 fridge, the ice box is in the centre of the fridge, and that ice box actually cools the rest of the refrigerator. That was originally put in that house and it’s still running. It’s not like there were ten different owners.

 

While your love for Cuba comes across as all-encompassing—from Cuban cowboy-run tobacco farms to the busy streets of Havana—your enchantment with Trinidad seems particularly strong. Is that fair to say?

I never really thought of that, but good observation. The story of Trinidad is definitely very interesting. The Spanish brought slaves to Trinidad to harvest sugar cane. When slavery was abolished, the wealthy plantation owners left Trinidad, they just abandoned it, and left it to mostly Afro-Cubans, who were the descendants of slaves. Trinidad was only accessible by sea. They we essentially abandoned and left to care for the land with no commerce. In the early 1950s a road was built, and then the Cuban revolution happened and Trinidad was again abandoned. So, it really wasn’t until the last 20 years that people outside of Trinidad realised its value as a 500-year-old city. That’s why it is so well-preserved: the jewel that is Trinidad.

 

Our Man In Havana

Central to Havana’s evolving character are old cars, family relics and passionate tunes.

How important was Cuban hospitality in the making of your book?

Oh, it was amazing. But again, I find that really runs across the board, globally, when you are among really humble poor people. They are just so proud, (saying) ‘Come to my home, can I make you a coffee?’ even though they have barely enough coffee for themselves for the next day.

 

Can you tell us about Israel Gonzalez, who you met by jokingly shouting ‘robbery, robbery’ as he climbed through his window after locking himself out of his home?

He died of Covid in November. I’m very sad about that. I would come to Trinidad and as soon as I had some free time I would try and find him. He was not a man who could easily be reached by phone, but as soon as he knew I was in town, he would go out of his way to make me coffee or cook me a fish lunch. Those special bonds are very dear to my heart.

 

What was it like seeing your first unfinished Soviet-era road bridge?

In the early 1990s, these bridges were built, in the West; I believe three of them, as part of a Soviet expansion in the 1980s. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did all the subsidies in Cuba. So here are these highway bridges left 30 plus years later, and no one has made an effort to finish the roads… It’s a sculpture, a symbol of many things… the collapse of the Soviet Union, the beginning of Cuba’s Special Period, and yet another example of the failure of Communism.

 

Our Man In Havana

Photo Courtesy: Michael Chinnici

Why the title Vanishing Cuba?

All cultures as we know them will transition. Some say they will vanish. It’s nothing particular about Cuba. I see this happening in all developing countries. Take New York’s Lower East Side… it’s not the same, it’s vanishing. Real estate development is displacing all the history and culture that once was. I didn’t create Vanishing Cuba to show the world, here’s what it looked like five years ago and this is what it looks like today. Cuba’s unique… the way the people are welcoming.

 

You may also like | Off Course in Cuba

 

This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India July-August 2022.

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

Essentials

Our Man In Havana

Photo Courtesy: Michael Chinnici

 

The vivid storytelling photo collection is produced in both English and Spanish, complete with moving essays from the photographer’s Cuban friends. Vanishing Cuba is available in a Silver Edition (pictured), Deluxe Edition, and the Collector’s Reserve Edition—limited to 300 copies. Published by Red Octopus Publishing. Find his coffee table book at redoctopuspublishing.com.

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  • Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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