a world

Cuba — Melancholy, Music, Mojo, Revolution: A Polaroid Photo Essay by Robert Sturman.

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba

“What do we leave behind when we cross each frontier? Each moment seems split in two: melancholy for what was left behind and the excitement of entering a new land.” ~ Che Guevara

For 10 years, I traveled the world with an old Polaroid camera, using a pre-Photoshop technique of carving (by hand) into the images before the chemistry settled. One of the places I focused on was Cuba, making four separate trips (of one month each) to the island. Cuba is unarguably the most unique, far from America (yet only 90 miles away) country I have ever visited.

My love for Cuba only grows as I begin to understand the sweet complexities of a country that was shut off from the U.S. well over 50 years ago. The people, the cars, the rum, the music, the sea…

Cuba broke my heart. Cuba opened my mind. Cuba helped me see the world.

Let me take you to Cuba…

But first, press Play:

The last time an American car was sent to Cuba was in 1959.

The last time an American car was sent to Cuba was in 1959.

Although we love seeing these classics line the streets, any Cuban would trade one in for a newer Ford if they could. Fixing them, finding parts, and the cost of fuel is a tremendous hardship.

The music in Cuba is of the highest quality everywhere you go, and it takes pride on its incredibly skilled and talented musicians.

The music in Cuba is of the highest quality everywhere you go, and it takes pride on its incredibly skilled and talented musicians.

My first night in Havana I was exploring the vibrant streets and I heard the most beautiful music coming from a club called The Palermo. I went in and noticed how the ladies were smiling at me. For a second, I thought I was Antonio Banderas.

Then I hung out with the band, made a portrait of the saxophonist, drank some rum, and smoked a cigar. I looked around again and noticed that the ladies were all over everyone. Suddenly, I realized that not only was I in a brothel, but the brothel I was in had the best live music in the world.

The Partagas Cigar Factory: La Habana.

The Partagas Cigar Factory: La Habana.

I walked by the Partagas Cigar Factory five times a day for one month, looking for the perfect car to compliment this very La Habana-esque scene.

It was a Sunday morning, I had given up and I was on my way to the airport in a taxi, when I realized I was sitting in the car I had been searching for all along.

Cubans can throw a baseball like no other human beings on the planet.

Cubans can throw a baseball like no other human beings on the planet.

Being drafted by a Major League Baseball team is the equivalent to winning the lottery.

At first I laughed.

At first I laughed.

It takes time to understand the complexities of Cuban life. To begin with, very few Cubans speak any English, they do not have the freedom to leave the island, the U.S. has not permitted trade with them for over 50 years, and the poverty level is heartbreaking.

Left behind by a tourist, this shirt is probably the only one he has and no one else in Cuba is laughing about it.

“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.” ~ Che Guevara

“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.” ~ Che Guevara

The iconic image of Che Guevara, the Marxist Revolutionary who led the Cuban Revolution with Fidel Castro, is the most reproduced image in human history.

Revolución!

Revolución!

One of the most isolated countries on the planet, many Cubans sum up their history in two categories — before the revolution and after the revolution.

In a way, Che Guevara’s words in his hopeful and honest beginnings, have now turned into a somber prophecy:

“I would rather die standing up than live life on my knees.”

Alejandro: Old Havana.

Alejandro: Old Havana.

One of the gems of Cuba to us is that it is untouched by American business, as it is one of the last standing socialist countries. It’s a tear and a smile.

While being cut off from the big USA could be refreshing to us, it only ads to the struggle they are in, and they long to be connected to the world. Cuban life is not easy. A doctor makes an average $20 U.S. monthly salary.

The guitarist: Trinidad, Cuba

The guitarist: Trinidad, Cuba

Calle Cuba: La Habana.

Calle Cuba: La Habana.

Through my work in Cuba, I tried to celebrate its life in all its unique and colorful glory.

While there are not many choices for the life of a Cuban, there is a gift that they have learned to live with: finding joy in the moment. I have never met a warmer culture filled with genuine kindness.

My prayer for Cuba is that eventually when the Castro family exits, the lives of the people will significantly improve.

As Che Guevara put it,

“Be realistic. Demand the impossible!”

***

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Robert Sturman
A dedicated Yoga practitioner, photographer Robert Sturman has increasingly focused on capturing the timeless grace and embodied mindfulness of asana in his work. His portraits, whether set in the lively streets of Manhattan, the expansive beaches and canyons of Malibu, the timeless elegance of Walden's New England, or the bleakness of Marin County's San Quentin Prison, remind us that there is beauty everywhere. In Sturman's own words, "I often think of Rumi's words, 'I can't stop pointing to the beauty.' That feels right to me." Sturman's honors include Official Artist of the 47th Annual Grammy Awards, 2010 FIFA World Cup Artist Representing America, and Official Artist 2007 United States Olympics. In 2012 and 2013, Sturman was the subject of two separate New York Times articles celebrating his photographs of Yoga from around the world. You can find out more about Robert’s work at his online studio and connect with him via Facebook and Twitter.
Robert Sturman