Carl De Keyzer
Cuba, La Lucha
‘Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.’
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
In December 1962 Agnès Varda visited Cuba invited by the ICAIC. The Belgium born avant-garde filmmaker intended to make a short film about the changes that ensued in the Caribbean nation three years after the triumph of the revolution. Her vision was set to capture the signs of progress as well as the symptoms of unparalleled optimism that seized the population.
In preparation, she took thousands of photographs: black and white reality bites that featured the popular celebrations with impromptu dancing sessions, the beauty of the women, the recurring marching of militias’ parades, the sugar cane harvesters’ sweaty devotion and the general intensity of being. By means of photomontage - a technique much in vogue at the time -, Salut les Cubains was completed in 1964 with an original sound track of readings by Varda and actor Michel Piccoli embellished by the melodies of the great Cuban singer Benny Moré. Varda’s accomplishment was to deliver the spirit of that incomparable moment not as a conventional documentary film but as a syncopated sequence of still images.
Fuelled by the charisma of its leaders and their innovative rhetoric, the Cuba portrayed by Varda in Salut les Cubains became one of the trademark images of an era marked by global fascination with socialism at the peak of the Cold War.
For Cubans - and by extension for Latin Americans and Africans - Varda’s fine-looking film served as a visual reminder of unbound hope and indisputable utopia.
Nevertheless, Varda’s own definition of Cuba as an incomparable marriage of ‘socialism and cha-cha-cha’ gives account of her exoticizing gaze. Made one year after the Cuban regime had repelled the US invasion of Bay of Pigs and the start of the fifty-five year embargo that strangled the nation with merciless economic restrictions, such romantic view remains questionable. Like an implicit reference to the surrealist motto comme la rencontre fortuite sur une table de dissection d'une machine à coudre et d'un parapluie so dear to the French literary tradition, the definition seems to do little more than to reinforce the ready made propaganda of the Cuban Revolution as a spicy Caribbean version of deadpan socialism.
A luta continua?
On the other side of this story and after decades of political stasis, Cuba is under international scrutiny again. The once young magnetic leaders that guided the nation to progressive change remain in power after a sustained economic crisis, which led thousands to either exile or imprisonment for dissent.
La lucha has become the most common definition of a state of being for Cubans since the times of the economic collapse of the 1990s. An expression coined by people to define their struggle for survival, it was normalised by the crisis and continues to be regularly used today. Echoing such spirit of struggle, Carl De Keyzer’s latest body of work Cuba, La Lucha is fruit of his observation of the changes affecting the island at this very hour.
Also significant is the relationship of the expression with the anticolonial struggle motto ‘A luta continua’, employed by Mozambican independence hero and first president Samora Machel, which seem to palpitate at the core of these photographs. Nonetheless, in light of the present shifts towards capitalism and the opening of Cuba’s borders, the struggle signifies not only material improvement but also a softening of state control. As the latest chapter of his on going investigation of the fall of socialist regimes around the world, the series attempts to capture the atmosphere of Cuba’s uneasy jump from Marxist-Leninist ideology to capitalist economy.
The photographer’s personal investment in the subject is typical of the age he has lived through. He witnessed the end of the URSS, which he recorded from the angle of a proto socialist disappointed with the end of a political utopia when first visiting the URSS in the late 1980s.
His book Homo Sovieticus (1988-1989) second of a series of on going monographic publications, was launched at the time of the Berlin wall’s fall. The photographs, while not conceived for exhibition purposes but for a book format comprising images and his own texts, granted him entrance to the famous Magnum agency.
Homo Sovieticus was shot in the year before the fall of the infamous incarnation of the Cold War: the Berlin wall, a high security borderline standing in the heart of Europe. The book, which was presented during the opening of the photographer’s first solo show in Amsterdam on the day of the fall, November 9th 1989, presents premonitory images that announce the system’s collapse before it was formally declared. The photographer records dwindling displays of nationalism where effigies of Marx, Lenin and Gorbachev are taken down after a parade as seen on the cover of the book, which appear as prophetic metaphors of the end of ideology.
Photo book projects
Carl De Keyzer’s photography books encompass subjects ranging from religion (God Inc., 1992), colonisation (Congo (Belge) and Congo Belge en Images, 2009) as well as the environment (Moments before the flood, 2012), the prison system (Zona, 2003) to political change (Homo Sovieticus 1989 and East of Eden, 1996).
Most significantly, Carl De Keyzer’s thematic bodies of work grow persistently around a central concern: the observation of human invented systems. Fascinated by the inner mechanisms of control and their effect on society, he eschews the obvious critique by rather focusing on the nuances of humour, wonder and vulnerability contained in every day occasions. He succeeds in presenting the effects of change by decoding its impact through a myriad of poetic and intimate moments of suspended disbelief. Unlike many photographers emerging from the discipline of photojournalism, his photographs are not documents at face value as his is not a realist approach.
Entirely shot in black and white, views of street scenes in Homo Sovieticus show the muted uniformity of revolution day parades and other nationalistic celebrations enacted with disenchantment, revealing the lack of lustre of a broken dream. In close juxtaposition to this, there is always a hint of the unusual taking place: swimming ladies seem to ravel in a frozen sea, a wedding day, beach scenes or family parties are all shot from unexpected angles, radiating the extraordinary.
At the start of his exploration of the end of ideology the photographer chose Armenia, Uzbekistan, Russia and Lithuania to finally cover the thirteen Soviet Republics, carefully planning the conceptual framework, given that the chance to capture the moment is always reduced. The use of flash and slow film to heighten contrast produces an aesthetic signature, illuminating crucial elements of the image. As in neorealist films, reality is presented raw and poetical at once. He employs diversion techniques based on the proposition of multidimensional readings that invite us to chose what to see in a single image. A number of aesthetic conventions proper of art photography help him to unravel big themes departing from the minuscule, gestures and small details, to unpick the humanity of the subjects as if in a whisper, for his is not the endeavour of an objective photojournalist.
In conceptual terms, Carl De Keyzer claims not to be interested in proposing changes but in merely recording the transition of significant historical moments, making it visible by enhancing the splendour and uncertainty of fleeting moments. Examples of his emotional deconstruction of major historical events can be found in the pictures taken in two crucial sites of resistance at the end of the URSS: in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania and in Yerevan, Armenia.
One could say that the strength of this photographer is his sense of timing, fundamental to seize the opportunity offered by the moment of action, a skill he learned as an agency photographer. He knows that images have a greater impact when they emerge from the zeitgeist. Although he recalls feeling constrained while doing his work in the URSS, he seized the opportunity given by Perestroika and Glasnost’s easing of restrictions, which he used to his advantage.
Cuba, La Lucha
Twenty-six years later, Carl De Keyzer embarks again in another photographic voyage to engage with what appears to be the end of socialism. He arrives in Cuba in January 2015, after president Obama’s famous announcement of the reestablishment of Cuba-USA relations that had been dramatically severed since January 1961. In his historical speech, Obama proposed to relieve the burden of Cubans with the end of sanctions, publically recognising, in a gigantic and memorable political gesture, how the embargo had not served the interests of both countries. On condition, Cuban authorities were invited to unleash the potential of eleven million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on the political, social and economic activities. The game became clear: both sides of the fifty-year old battle need to actively work on their rapprochement, supposedly on condition of putting an end to socialist rule on the island.
One of the series’ first photographs, taken from the derelict interior of an apartment building in Obispo Street at the heart of Old Havana, shows the Capitolio, standing memory of the old city’s splendour, seen through the apartment’s window. The majestic dome appears covered in scaffolding due to its undergoing restoration, and thus becomes a telling visual reminder of a nation ready to inaugurate another chapter of its history. Completed in 1929 by Cuban architects heavily influenced by the designs of the Capitol in Washington and the Panthéon des Invalides in Paris, el Capitolio ceased to fulfil its official purpose in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution.
The placing of this particular image at the start of the series is thus highly symbolic: marking the end of an era known as a landmark of twentieth century history, the building is undergoing renewal by the restorer of Old Havana, Eusebio Leal. Once revamped to a new life, it will see its function reinstated as the stage of political action in the future.
Between the covers of this book lies the intensity of a moment that has been equally feared and desired on both sides of the Florida Strait for over five decades. But the task at hand is highly complex given the intricacy of the changes taking place in Cuba. A transitional face for political leadership and the reduction of the public sector go hand in hand with the rapid raise of market economy including the spreading of private enterprise and the establishment of a real estate market.
Perhaps because of the shock produced by such an enormous shift condensing in a relatively short period of time, the photographs exude a sense of unease, or as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman would put it, a sense of being in a period of interregnum, between a time when we had certainties and another when the old ways of doing things no longer work.
In Cuba, La Lucha, scenes of crumbling interiors framing the lives of people affected by scarcity appear unavoidable. One is accustomed to the Cuban visual repertoire featuring the decay of the city and to the nostalgia-fuelled images of American cars driven along the famous Malecón promenade. Even when consciously avoided by the photographer, clichés are inevitable in a nation that simultaneously tries to shake off its own vintage stereotypes, and is ready to exploit them as one of the tourist industry’s highlights.
In contrast, some of Carl De Keyzer’s shots become ambiguous tokens of fake joy and melancholy. Such is the case in a photograph recording a kitsch and disgruntled marriage scene, which like a nightmare in Technicolor reminds us of the artificiality that saturates Martin Parr’s photographs of Britain’s suburbia. Less saturated and eternally familiar, Che Guevara’s portrait hanging over an out-dated bank agency or spread over the pages of a Cuban atlas speak of sarcasm in the face of indoctrination.
The question that seems to simmer at the root of the images is: how can the past and the future converge in Cuba? Conceivably, the various visual ironies captured in this book will serve to take the pulse of the present and imagine what is yet to come.
In light of these questions, it is crucial to understand that the new generations and their aspiration to access the delights of global culture through unrestricted information spearhead Cuba’s changes. One notes that with a few exceptions this doesn’t seem to be at the centre of the pictures: the intimacy revealed by the portraits is infused of a bittersweet nostalgia where hope seems to inhabit a distant dream.
Young Cubans are empowered by a new, avid connection with the world, and the technological revolution that has slowly penetrated the island is rapidly displacing the single-mindedness of the socialist one, however problematic that may be.
Carl De Keyzer knows that the new struggle is about what is coming up and that a fundamental part of the change implies growing access to technology. Government funded Wi-Fi antennas facilitate communications with family and friends abroad as well as access to global information networks.
As in other terrains, political changes have historically occurred as a response to reality and not to policy engineering. Since new legalisation permitted it in 2008, it is estimated that fifteen per cent of Cubans have active mobile lines, which coupled with increasing access to internet, has helped them to circumnavigate state control over information, thus defying the Party’s hard line on freedom of expression. Considering this, censorship is increasingly incapable of controlling what is said or thought for the first time in decades.
The question of time
The split between the old system and the new reality is intensifying as Cuba begins to change, and since photography’s relationship with time is intrinsically ambivalent, the contrast of feeling contained in Varda’s and in Carl De Keyzer’s images embodies that tension. In regards to this, no one like Roland Barthes has made the complex nature of photography’s temporality more explicit:
‘The type of consciousness the photograph involves is indeed truly unprecedented, since it establishes not a consciousness of the being- there of the thing (which any copy could provoke) but an awareness of its having-been-there. What we have is a new space-time category: spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then’.
In Carl De Keyzer’s photographs another element adds to this complexity: the choice of characters whose existence seems immersed in the awkwardness of time travel. Such is the case with the elderly ballet dancer posing in her modest basement room, displaying a decadent neoclassical bed frame under the unbearable weight of a concrete staircase. Such domestic settings carry a prickly feeling of voyeurism that makes us wonder if we shall be allowed into these private spaces, where shame and the good nature of hosts are two sides of the same coin. Does this sense of discomfort allow the recognition of how people imagine their own world and hence construct their image; or conversely, are we mere dispassionate witnesses of the hardship of those subjected to a broken promise?
Images of poverty and struggle constitute a distinctive focus of the photojournalist genre. Some artists and photographers, whose take on the exploitation of human tragedy gave raise to poetic conceptual approaches, have sharply challenged this tendency. Such as the case in Alfredo Jaar’s body of work about Rwanda, where the traces of the genocide are totally obliterated giving way instead to an installation made of slides showing a single image: a close up of the eyes of a boy who witnessed the massacres’ horror.
Moreover, throughout the history of art this topic of representation is far from being exhausted. Such perennial question is concerned with the psychological engagement of the sitter, namely whether the photograph is taken in such way to allow our gaze to be reciprocated; and if so, how much in control is the subject of the image’s ultimate meaning? Additional to the question of the gaze, our role as spectators carries the shadow of guilt, as we might feel accomplices in our passivity when facing the situation denounced by the image. This question was dealt with by Roland Barthes in his essay ‘Shock Photos’ whereby he advances that ‘a photograph is not terrible in itself ( …) the horror comes from the fact that we are looking at it from inside our freedom’.
An image of a poor elderly woman in the hall of a stunningly stylish Art Déco building in Havana places the viewer in an ambivalent position. Exposed with her ragged dress and seemingly lost or confused, the woman stands as a metaphor voided of subjectivity. Carl De Keyzer reminds us that ‘there is a border, a line that you don’t cross: you don’t go backstage in the theatre’ The domestic setting of the private boxing club, where impromptu fencing exercises take place under the gaze of revolutionary icons is a reminder of a long standing struggle.
There is an imprint of the photographers’ mind in these images, as innocence is not possible even if photography works to naturalize a view of the world that is in fact always political and interested. Consequently, it does not seem feasible to append authorship.
A very special period
It is widely known that to fully grasp the present it is paramount to examine the past. A crucial moment of Cuba’s recent history, the euphemistically called ‘período especial’ can be considered as the beginning of the revolution’s end.
When the Berlin wall fell in 1989 Cuba suffered the impact of significant collateral damage. The immediate consequence was the declaration of an economic state of emergency so-called “Special Period in Peacetime” fruit of the collapse of the trade arrangements with the Soviet Union, which at the time amounted to an annual subsidy of six billion dollars. By 1993 the economy had dropped by thirty five percent, leaving people unprotected, so most Cubans daily preoccupation was to secure a minimum level of subsistence for themselves and their families, by any means. This is when the struggle - la lucha - begins, a state of things carried into the present in the memory and behaviors of the population.
In political terms, the opening of the Soviet Union to a dialogue with the world planted a seed of hope for Cubans, especially in artistic and intellectual circles. But the seed was soon to perish before germinating, as government control and restrictions on freedom of expression augmented and punishment of dissent grew harder, causing thousands of citizens to emigrate.
Fast forwarding into Carl De Keyzer’s depictions of Cuba today, his aforementioned skill to seize the opportunity appears clearly in the photograph depicting a blind man walking over the floor drawing of the Cuban and U.S. flags with the legend: Welcome - Por la unidad de los pueblos (For the union of the people). The man’s step on the graffiti and its photographic memento operate in two simultaneous realms: those of the premonition and paradox, as who is welcome and in which terms is not clear.
Similarly, irony emerges in the surreal image of the natural history museum in the colonial city of Trinidad. A stuffed crocodile opens its menacing jaws, somehow pointing at the admissions lady on the other corner, whose equally frightening look seems in turn directed at the photographer.
Like her, some of the subjects in the series glance obliquely or in defiance, as if intending to take back some of their power. They rarely smile or assume agency when their world is penetrated by the camera, except for the man who joyously shares his domino moment with us, waiving his inviting hands in the sweet afternoon air.
In general terms, one senses the unease of his infiltration in the private and social spaces that Cubans are so open to share with curious foreign visitors. This feeling is possibly born out of the ambivalence of the present time and the enormous curiosity shown by the world.
Rooster fight scenes in remote rural areas where men place their bets in Cuban convertible currency (CUC) address parallel economies, but the pervasive hustling of tourists by young men and women in nightclubs and out in the streets is not to be found among these photographs. Such amply visible activity - also euphemistically named la lucha by those who practice it - speaks of the paradox of the struggle for survival in a country where education was not only paramount, but also deemed to eliminate sex work. According to social anthropologists who have studied this subject, also widely covered by artists and photographers, the historical stigmatisation of sex work, linked to the vices of imperialism and therefore displaced by the construction of the New Man, could not prevent the spreading of sex for money exchange with foreigners.
As in real life, the photographs convey the decay of the socialist project in ways that are most visible when reading between the lines.
Often small gestures define a place better than grand narratives. Ironic and poetic, a view of the dinosaurs’ park near Santiago de Cuba is an invitation to time travel to a remote past lying beyond revolutions and their aftermath. In another image, a symbol appears disturbingly out of place in a street scene of Guanabacoa’s Afro Cuban neighbourhood: among a youth group, the head of a man shows a shaved swastika design as part of his hairstyle.
Interestingly enough, the flying saucer-shaped architecture of the landmark ice cream parlour Copelia does not feature in Carl De Keyzer’s choice of images for this book. The famous modernist ice cream parlour opened in 1966, borrowing its name from the celebrated ballet comique with music scored by Léo Delibes’ and based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story ‘The Doll’. The naming of a shop after literary and classical ballet references speaks of a cultural atmosphere that for decades made Cuba stand among the most progressive nations in the world. This, alongside the 1961 literacy campaign and the provision of housing for the entire population, remain remarkable victories in the context of the Caribbean, a region historically hit by inequality and lack of education.
Although it could be argued that precariousness contributed to most of Cuban regime decline, it is in the persistent panoptical monitoring of the population’s revolutionary conduct where the political project lost its credibility, seeding discontent. The internalization of fears that prevented certain thoughts and actions from being expressed had a disabling effect: Cubans are naturally open, generous and certainly resilient, but the policing of behavior induced a bitter taste of disenchantment. The widening gap between party rhetoric and its authoritarian modus operandi, including the detention of artists and intellectuals as well as general ideological oppression, became a self-destructive force against which wide sectors of the population rebelled in a variety of ways.
The struggle continues
Following on the footsteps of his previous bodies of work, in Cuba, La Lucha Carl De Keyzer places the emphasis in a non-literal visual analysis of man-made schemes and their effect on humans.
Notably so, in his highly acclaimed series God Inc., by forcing himself into religious communities under pretence of seeking salvation, he demonstrated his capacity to role play. In his project about Congo the photographer portrayed the living symptoms of post colonialism as seen from the old colonial power’s perspective.
In Cuba, La Lucha his questions are open as wounds or fresh flowers, given that the subject of the series is indeed change and, therefore, both sore and unfathomable. Such ambiguity manifests in oblique portraits of people, with their bodies in deep connection with buildings, immersed in striking primary colour fields or engaged in outdoor routines. Private and social histories are told though the inclusion of a minimal selection of elements, among which architecture features repeatedly. The image of a young man playing piano in a cultural centre’s room is made all the more seductive by the orchestration of decay signs: a broken window shutter and disintegrating chairs become signs of his struggle.
Illusions are created in seconds and killed through years of continuous deterioration. References can be comical or unexpectedly surreal, and could be traced back to the likes of Monty Python or Buñuel, conceivably lodged at the back of the photographer’s mind.
The expressiveness of man-made constructions such as interiors of dilapidated buildings is a key narrative and conceptual element in these photographs of a country being deconstructed by the camera as it rebuilds itself.
Unexpectedly, the book’s last image tells us a very different story. Showing the visual symmetry of coloured wooden cabins in a resort, associations with wealth and leisure present a seamless and familiar global fantasy.
Miami? I am afraid not: it is Varadero.
© Gabriela Salgado
London, January 2016