If just one image from the photo exhibit "Cuba: Contrasting Visions" can cause a pause in the drone of excited conversations and consistent media narrative of "vintage cars and fine cigars" that has occurred since proposed new rules were put in place to ease American travel to Cuba, then curator and digital photography pioneer Vincent Versace will have accomplished his goal.
"I have a mandate — and nobody gave it to me; it just sort of evolved — which is, my job is to go to places that are about to emerge and photograph and try and preserve photographically the sense of innocence," Versace explains, "so when things start to change and traditions start to be affected, there's this visual record that I can leave to those people that says, 'This is what is great about you; don't forget it.'?"
This mandate has served Versace well over the years, including during a 12-year stint shooting in Burma. He spent a couple of days with Aung San Suu Kyi after her release and saw a similar place on the verge of emergence there. "I was there when the elections occurred, and that same thing that occurred there — with that sense of excitement and wonder and waiting for things to change — is occurring now in Cuba. I think what is going to save them is that the infrastructure is simply not there to support a wall of people coming in."
With this show, which encompasses 200 images taken by his Palm Beach Photographic Centre FOTOshoot students over four trips to Havana and surrounding countryside over the past year, Versace is trying to change the conversation away from the one-dimensional travel-postcard image that many non-Cubans may have in their heads.
He is known for a prolific shutter finger and the ability to shoot off photos "at the speed of life," which has led to his having golfer's elbow, tennis elbow, and stress fractures in his shooting finger. At one point, he was even given doctor's orders to lay off the camera for six weeks, which he said was "like telling a heroin addict there's no heroin left on the planet."
The works, including 80 of Versace's own pieces, will be on display at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre through June 13.
The remaining selected photos were all taken by PBPC students who participated in the class over 14 days. Those students include Carol Booth, Michael Holstein, Eric Isicoff, Jay Koenigsburg, Ken Kurzweil, Tommy Morrison, Carol Roberts, and Leslie Slatkin. Pictures of people, epic coastlines, and pastel cityscapes mesh with images of cars and nightlife.
"Cuba: Contrasting Visions" intends to show the multitudes and variations of the Cuban experience, one Versace says includes a shatterproof self-confidence in the midst of crumbling infrastructure and a deep appreciation for the art of photography, which he says can be loosely credited to Fidel Castro's regime.
"I am not a big fan of communism, but there are some things he has accomplished in his version of a society that are kind of cool," Versace says, referencing a high literacy rate, "which is interesting because the reason photography is so revered in Cuba is largely because the newspapers had to have lots and lots of pictures because the people couldn't read the text, so what developed in that closed society is the focus on the photographic image which is still in reverence today."
Versace says this respect for the camera also benefits any American photographer sent to document the Cuban experience, because people were very open to being photographed. But he wonders what will change when "the thundering herds of people come with their cameras in their faces a couple of years from now." The traveling group of shutterbugs encountered few complications with the Cuban government, save for the level of equipment coming through the airport. Versace has learned since to travel light.
"What I've learned to do: I don't travel; I deploy. I normally bring tons of equipment. I threw an external hard drive in my checked baggage and then spent two and a half hours explaining that hard drive."
On the students' first visit, they set up shop in a hotel; on subsequent trips, it was in apartments and the homes of residents.
"My personal preference would be the latter because you don't have a breakfast buffet or internet, but there is interaction and life there. I stayed with the same family a couple of times, and they don't refer to me as a tourist; they tell me I'm 'mi familia,' or one of them." Versace has no actual familial ties to Cuba, counting his Cuban American neighbor across the street who occasionally waxes poetic about pre-Castro days as his closest lineage.
Versace acknowledges his own visualizations and imagining of Cuban life that started as a child, saying that unlike the fetishization of rum, cigars, and old cars, his wanting came in dessert form.
"I always wanted to eat ice cream at the park at a stand in old Havana because — according to an article I had read about it when I was 12 years old — it was the best ice cream in the world." That and he read (pretty ravenously) stories of mystery and intrigue as a young adult, and many of those stories used Havana as the setting. "Everybody I've ever spoken to says, 'Oh Cuba, that's on my bucket list. I can't wait to go! Can you bring me back a cigar?'?"
He attempts to discard expectations of what he'll find whenever he returns and cautions his students — and anyone, for that matter — against traveling with preconceived notions of Cuba.
"The people are sweet and wonderful," he says. "You will never meet a Cuban with a low sense of self-esteem. It does not matter how impoverished they might appear to U.S. eyes; you will never meet a Cuban that thinks any less of themselves as a Cuban."
He says the largely untouched buildings of 1959 that are now "crumbling into accelerated decrepitude" serve as a surprisingly beautiful background for showing an unbroken human spirit of the people who live there. Now that a half-century of travel restrictions is starting to lift, Versace hopes to show Americans with intentions of traveling to Cuba that it's more than capturing your smiling mug in front of Ford Fairlanes and Chevy Bel-Airs.
"Well, in a way you have no choice; it's only vintage cars," he says, pausing. "All I am there to do is to capture the Cuba that exists."