État Brut: Jeffry Plomley’s Journey Continues in Havana, Part II

This is the second and final installment in a two part guest series from Jeffry Plomley coinciding with his portfolio being featured in the April issue of LFI Magazine. His first guest post discussed Boxing in Cuba.

The result of last year’s photographic excursion to Cuba (Santiago and Chivirico) ignited a passion within for this “État Brut” or “Raw State”, the title of my upcoming portfolio in LFI magazine. With the aim of self-publishing a book in 2012, I headed to Havana in February to augment my collection of Cuban impressions, and to explore other aspects of the culture which escaped me on that seminal visit. In Part 2 of this exploration, I would like to share some captures from the street, including a few initial images representing the beginning of a project for next year’s return visit entitled “Beautiful Decay”.

Without a doubt, Havana represents one of the world’s meccas for street photography, due in part to a bustling population of just over 2 million people coupled with a background of outstanding architecture. Unlike Santiago and Chivirico with much smaller populations (500,000 and 15,000 respectively), part of the challenge shooting in Havana involves distilling frenetic human activity into simple motifs while striving for uncluttered imagery. This often means moving in close and/or seeking permission to enter personal dwellings. For the most part, Cuban culture is such that being invited into a home requires no more than “¡Hola!” and a genuine interest to share stories!

It was announced last year that 500,000 government jobs, almost one-tenth of Cuba’s total labor force, will be eliminated by the end of March 2011, with the hope that most would shift to self-employment. This represents an expansion of free-market activity, which was clearly demonstrated on the street with the opening of “hole-in-the-wall” snack bars, pizzerias and coffee stands. Plumbing supplies, kitchen utensils, coat hangers, worn out shoes and clothespins were examples of items for sale on display tables parked in front of homes.

Street professions ranged from refilling butane lighters, shoe polishing and crushing cans for recycling, the latter earning eight Cuban pesos, the equivalent of roughly 30 cents (in US dollars) per kilogram. Without a doubt, there was an undercurrent of desperation I had not experienced a year ago while traveling through Santiago and Chivirico. The failing economy has taken its toll. Even highly educated Cubans struggle to make ends meet. I learned that doctors earn, on average, 35 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC), approximately 40 US dollars, per month. Therefore, many doctors have studied massage, allowing them to earn 25 CUC per hour at several of the tourist hotels.

Economic woes are not all that plague Havana; crumbling architecture has become an increasing concern. While photographing a doorway, a gentleman approached and asked if I liked the building. I showed him the image on the LCD of my M9, and he exclaimed “Incredible!” He was interested in what the image was for and I explained that I was starting a project entitled “Beautiful Decay”. He loved this title that he ran back across the street and returned with his wife begging me, “Tell my wife what you call this project.” The couple was so enthused that I received a guided tour throughout the neighborhood, with all the architectural highlights being brought to my attention. With neighbors being so tightly connected, before I knew it the couple were banging on doors to introduce me, “You must meet this lady and see her doll collection; it is incredible.” But the Beautiful Decay is also Deadly Decay. My newfound hosts explained that every summer during hurricane season, the entire neighborhood lives in fear of living in, or near, crumbling buildings. “It is very dangerous and we never know.” Building debris lies in the middle of the sidewalk, while overhead the rebar from a balcony is exposed.

Despite the challenges that lie ahead for Cuba, one undeniable thread binding this country together is an outward exuberance for life and a camaraderie inspired by a tight social network. Heading back to Montreal after weeks in Cuba represents a dichotomy with which I wrestle. While I most certainly value a good night’s sleep and all of the other comforts available to me at home, my visual and auditory senses cry out for more. I miss the cacophony of sounds that fill the streets of Havana. Where are the sounds of children playing baseball and soccer or the thwack of a tile being placed in a passionate game of dominoes? Where are the strangers inviting us in for drink and conversation? Where is the music echoing through these street corridors of life? I look out my door and there is a void. Is this truly living?

-Jeffry Plomley

If you would like to see more of Jeff’s work, visit his website http://www.jeffplomleyphoto.com and pick up an issue of LFI which hits newsstands April 1.