Politics in Practice

Insights from our authors

Real and Imagined Havana

​James Clifford Kent is Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, UK. He is the author of Aesthetics and the Revolutionary City: Real and Imagined Havana.

When did you first start thinking about this book? Why did you decide to focus on Havana? What role did photography play in all of this?

I first began taking photographs in 2001. In that same year I travelled to Latin America twice (visiting Havana and Rio de Janeiro). It was at that time that I started thinking more seriously about photography, and these experiences went on to shape everything I have done in my career to date (including writing my book Aesthetics and the Revolutionary City: Real and Imagined Havana). As a result, my experiences as a photographer have informed both my research and university-level teaching, and it is for this reason that much of the analysis in the book focuses on the influence of photographic images. 

Before lecturing on Visual Cultures at Royal Holloway, University of London, I spent a year teaching at the Universidad de La Habana (the University of Havana). While working in Havana, I began to explore ideas relating to Cuba and photography, and more specifically the foreigner’s experience of Havana. This approach emerged out of discussions I had with colleagues and students at the Facultad de Lenguas Extranjeras (the Faculty of Foreign Languages). In turn, over the course of the last two decades, Havana has become a sort of second home to me and the practice-led research I have done in Cuba continues to have a major influence on my work. In many respects, the book is representative of the ways in which I – as a foreigner – have attempted to make sense of my relationship with Havana.

How is the foreigner’s experience of the “real” and “imagined” Havana changing, and why? How does this differ from the way the city is experienced by the people that live there?

In the British writer Graham Greene’s 1958 spy novel Our Man in Havana, the story’s omniscient narrator describes Havana as “a city to visit, not a city to live in.” This way of seeing the city may be seen as representative of how both pre- and post-revolutionary Havana have been visualised outside Cuba through the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Modern-day Havana remains a popular tourist destination for a fleeting visit – rather than an extended stay – and this type of appeal has influenced the way the city has been imagined abroad. This imaginary has formulated around both the pre-1959 idea of Havana as a type of “vicious” city (a hedonistic bolthole for visitors from the United States from the Prohibition era onwards) and the post-1959 Revolutionary image of the island and its capital city following the triumph of Fidel Castro’s rebel army. The continued visual interplay between these two imaginaries has led to the creation of a back-and-forth central to the popular metaphoric narrative of Havana as a city “frozen-in-time” – a version of the city seen through the eyes of the foreigner that is neither real or imagined but rather a somewhat fuzzy amalgamation of the different pre- and post-revolutionary aesthetics that have come to define it in the Western imaginary.

Since the end of the 1990s, Cuba (and more specifically Havana as synecdoche for Cuba) has become a mecca for filmmakers and photographers. The island is renowned as a photogenic place and Cubans are seen as a personable, photogenic people. More recently, the appeal of the country and its capital city has been boosted by more mainstream use of the Internet and the rising popularity of social media networks. The widely shared Cuban images that now captivate a global online audience arguably reaffirm the clichéd representations of the city that have existed for decades. Havana, like Cuba, continues to be portrayed as a “revolutionary” city, and visitors to Havana are keen to see and experience it for themselves before the city ceases to be, look and feel “revolutionary”. This phenomenon is evidenced by even the most cursory glance at popular travel Instagram accounts and their feeds, in which travellers can be found offering their own take on the island in touristic snapshots and video “stories.” The most popular images depict the more predictable tourist attractions and sights: brightly-coloured 1950s American-made automobiles; cocktails on the beach at Havana’s Playas del Este; street performers chomping on fat cigars; tourists dressed in replica rebel military berets; Havana’s colourful architecture; and so on. However, perhaps most striking in terms of the foreigner’s experience of Cuba today is the widespread use of self-portraiture (the “selfie”) as a way of memorialising their trips to the island. Visitors to Havana continue to be drawn to the same locations that have attracted them since the 1920s, and now they photograph themselves with their smartphones in front of different Cuban backdrops. Their photography of these scenes has contributed to the global circulation of images shaped around specific tourist zones (Havana before Castro; revolutionary Havana; the Havana old town; etc.), while also ensuring the continued popularisation of these Cuban imaginaries – and the aforementioned “frozen-in-time” narrative – that have been so widely absorbed in the West.

Which aesthetics continue to dominate Western imaginaries of Cuba, and why? How is this being reflected in the work of Cuban image-makers?

Following a period of momentous change for Cuba signified by the end of the Castro era, Cuba’s political isolation (and the longstanding US economic embargo against the country) continues to play a role in the country’s depiction as a “unique” location; a Communist island in a world shaped by global capitalism. The way Cuba is conceived in the contemporary Western imaginary is linked closely to the appeal of the island as a unique destination on the cusp of change. This is not a recent phenomenon. For several decades, part of this allure for foreigners has laid in the appeal of travelling to the country before it changes (due to the death of Fidel, the possible demise of the Cuban Revolution, and a supposed return of US dominance). Different image-makers (including filmmakers, photographers and tourists) travel to Cuba and its capital city looking to consolidate and synthesize different Cuba/Havana imaginaries that they themselves have constructed from a wide range of media. Furthermore, these relate to their own individual experiences, the films they have watched and the photographs they have seen. These travellers are searching for something that is not necessarily “real” per se but rather a feeling, an idea; a montage of different fragmentary images and impressions from which they make sense of Cuba and its capital city.

In recent years, the “Cuban thaw” (the much-documented normalization of relations between the US and Cuba) and a steady stream of celebrity visits to the island (trips made by Beyoncé, Jay Z, Rihanna, for example), as well as concerts by groups like The Rolling Stones and fashion shows by popular brands such as Chanel, have renewed appeal for Cuba as a popular global tourist destination. At the same time, foreign investment (from France, Qatar and Spain) and the subsequent emergence of several new hotels in the capital have resulted in very real changes to Havana’s cityscape. This series of watershed moments in the latest chapter of Cuban history has reinforced both the image of Havana’s foreignness and the notion of the city as an aesthetically interesting place to see and to be seen – a concept entrenched in the appeal of time travelling to an eminently photographable city held in a type of suspended animation and thus “frozen-in-time”.

Recent political developments have not changed the view that Havana is still a “revolutionary” city. The images of the Cuban Revolution and its iconic figureheads (including Fidel Castro and Che Guevara) continue to remain influential in the way Cuba is imagined outside the island. President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s anointment as successor to Raúl Castro in April 2018 led global media outlets to reflect on Cuba at a time of political change; referring to this current period as “a new era” that followed the end of the Castro brothers’ almost six-decade long leadership of the country. However, the reality for the majority of Cubans is that they continue to face the same challenges as the most austere years of the Cuban “Special Period” in the early 1990s. Throughout the island, Cubans continue to use the phrase “aquí, en la lucha” (“here, in the fight”) and “no es fácil” (“it’s not easy”) in reference to the everyday struggles they face, and this is certainly reflected in the work currently being produced by Cuban filmmakers, photographers and visual artists.

For many Cubans, photography from a national perspective has been associated primarily with creating a visual record of important events. The “story” of the revolutionary project was told in pictures and a Cuban photojournalistic style developed in the form of the much-celebrated black-and-white fotografía épica (epic photography) of the 1960s. Alberto Korda’s famous photograph of Che Guevara (Guerrillero heroico, 1960) was just one of many iconic Cuban images that became emblematic of the Revolution’s most fervent years. More recently, the production of documentary photography in Cuban society has evolved in response to the number of foreign photographers working in Cuba. Many Cuban photographers are cognizant of the superficial nature of much of the work done by foreign photographers on the island, which they see as lacking depth. The advent of new technologies such as Instagram represents an exciting time for Cuban image-makers and an opportunity for them to present work to a global audience that deals more explicitly in socio-cultural themes relating to the challenges faced in Cuba today. In the coming years, Cuban filmmakers, photographers and visual artists will surely play a central role in both contesting and reinforcing representations of Cuba in the Western imaginary; versions of the island that have traditionally been dominated by outsiders’ views of the country.

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