A Fresh Look At Cuba
Long before AirBnB, tourists rented rooms in casas particulares. Take in Meg Griffiths’ luminous portraits of the homes and their owners
It’s difficult to resist photographing the picturesque usual in Cuba: vintage cars rolling by buildings covered with peeling, brilliantly-colored paint; Che at Plaza de la Revolución; sugarcane, cigars, dancing, and fedora-capped men. These tired patterns are a direct result, of course, of how little visual change the country has gone through due to US embargoes, Castro’s restriction of American products, and the diminishing influx of Soviet capital after the dissolution of the USSR. Greedily—even shamefully—one popular American sentiment toward the recent loosening of restrictions has been a lamentation that Cuba will modernize and lose its picturesque, exotic look.
In 2010, Columbia, South Carolina-based photographer Meg Griffiths made her first trip to Cuba to begin her project Casa Particular. She was inspired by her grandparents’ photographs from their travels to Cuba in 1946. Her previous work concentrated on family and domestic spaces, and while she wished to explore this, she also hoped to add a new feather to Cuba’s visual cap. The pictures became Casa de fruta y pan, now published in book version by Aint-Bad Editions.
While Griffiths studied Cuba’s history and the history of image-making in Cuba in preparation for her first trip, she based her work on personal experiences staying in casas particulares: rooms in private homes rented to guests through an Airbnb-like situation (before April 2015 when Cubans were newly able to use actual Airbnb). In the introduction to her first book, Casa Particular, published by Peppergrass Press in 2012, she wrote:
The photographs in this series represent a modest cross-section of Cuban casas particulares in the central to western region and attend to a way of life where the previously private home becomes a business.
Griffiths treads the line between personal and formal by living as a visitor for various lengths of time in these casas particulares. On three separate trips, Griffiths spent four months staying with 16 different families, anywhere from one night to one-and-a-half weeks. She returned regularly to the home of Isabel, her original contact in Cuba, and Nana Isa, Isabel’s mother. Their casa became her de facto home base, and she’d return there after visiting other places in Cuba.
Griffiths kindly answered questions about her work via email.
Alyssa Coppelman (AC): How did you book the rooms you stayed in, pre-Airbnb?
Meg Griffiths (MG): I found Isabel [her first contact in Cuba] online and made plans to stay with her through an email. No money was even put down. I just arrived and asked her for recommendations for the next place I wanted to travel, and she would call and make arrangements. It was all by word of mouth once I got there. It was the perfect way to travel. I had flexibility and everyone I stayed with was amazing because they were all connected to someone else I knew through this network of really lovely casa particular owners.
And, every family is so incredibly different. Some interactions would be so intimate and familial — sharing food, sorting beans, singing karaoke in the living room, or just sitting on the porch chatting. Other families were more formal and interactions were hospitable and warm, but more businesslike. There was one family in a very touristy part of Cuba, a town called Varadero, which most Cubans will say is “not the real Cuba”, that I never even met. The house was sectioned off like a tiny motel and their employees were the only ones that I came into contact with. Consequently I didn’t like it there so much and I only stayed one night. For the most part however, my experiences were very personal.
AC: What was that first trip like? I’d love to hear what it felt like to finally arrive and spend time there after the extensive research you did.
MG: I think it was everything I expected and, at the same time, nothing I could prepare myself for. Visually, I felt that I knew these places: the crumbling neo-classical buildings; the children playing stick ball on the street; dozens of families gathered upon the Malecón (the large sea wall that curves around the edge of Havana) to watch the sunset over the Florida Straight; men playing chess; and women leaning over balconies, watching passersby down below while hanging laundry. All these visions I had seen through my extensive research of other photographers who had tread upon this ground before me.
Other things, well, lets just say it is much more about the experience of being with people — both the families I’ve met and come to love and everyone else I encountered. It’s about sharing a meal and listening to stories about the everyday, conversations about politics, and plans for the future, but also what it means to live in a close knit community. There was much talk over the years about what will happen if and when the embargo would be lifted—what that will do to the country, for better or worse.
I was talking to a man named Carlos, who has lived in other countries and visited his son in Miami, and he prefers the way of life in Cuba. When he visits the U.S., he says “people are working all the time, and if they aren’t they are always inside, glued to the television or their cell phones.” He called our houses jails and believes “we are trapped by our homes.” He lived in Switzerland for a period of time but asked his company to transfer him back to Havana because he didn’t like the culture much. He told me, “I love my country and the way people help one another. If you have a problem, I will try to help you, but if you have a problem anywhere else, it is your problem.” Many people are aware how amazing it is to live in a culture where you know your neighbors and even a stranger is a friend.
Isabel’s neighbor Elsa mentioned over dinner one night that the next 10 years were going to be very crucial for their country, and though they don’t know what is going to happen, the most important thing is that the country not lose their cultural identity once things begin to open up.
AC: What were some of the biggest differences you experienced?
MG: Initially I think I felt a real sense of isolation, for my own part not being able to contact my family much at all, and also in the sense that almost everyone I met, whether on the street or families I stayed with, had loved ones living in the United States or Canada. Some hadn’t seen their children or grandchildren, brothers or sisters, since they left in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Everyone had photographs sent from family across the water, a way of seeing those you love grow and prosper. The physical photograph was precious, rare, and cared for. To me they felt like visual lifelines. Being from a very close family, I suppose this really affected me the most.
AC: Were you ever tempted to (or did you) photograph cars and normal scenery?
MG: Most definitely. I have rolls and rolls of scanned film. Images from all over the country: fruit stands, beautiful murals, rows of classic cars in the parque, women selling girasol on the street, old men rolling cigars, gorgeous rolling farms, gardens bursting with fruit, the ocean that separates families and countries, the people I met on the street. I took it all in. I made pictures of everything. The first time I went I didn’t know if I’d ever go back, so I saw no reason to limit myself from making images of all my experiences and encounters while on the island.
AC: Has your feeling about the work changed in the five years since that first trip?
MG: Oh, why yes—every time I go back I feel a shift within myself, my experiences become fuller based upon experiences gathered from the past, and in that there is an expansion of my own perception. I sense this through my interactions with those I continue to visit, through their homes that keep changing and evolving (and growing both in number and in size), to the building, restorations, and new businesses that keep emerging each time I go back. It happened even through the experience of editing, sequencing, and writing my book, again helping me to re-experience the pictures I had made there in a new way, a visual way of expressing this opening I felt. And I find the Cuba I know now to be vastly different than the one I knew then.
AC: In earlier interviews, you mention that your interest in ethnography, cultural anthropology, and immersion in different cultures helped bring you to the starting point for this project. Being that others have tried the same thing and failed, how do you think you successfully avoided perpetrating the “mythology of how other cultures live,” which Aline Smithson writes about in the book’s introduction?
MG: Isn’t she brilliant? I do believe there is a tendency, and this can be seen in photographic history as well, to make an “other” out of seemingly disparate cultures. I believe this to be true about how many Americans see Cuba and think it’s quaint, cute, charming, or in this case how “stuck in the past” it all is. In some ways this is natural, though it’s not very holistic and perpetuates myths and stereotypes. I suppose being aware is the first step in trying to open yourself up to something greater. Cuba is not just one thing, it is a multitude.
I wanted to create a new conversation to add to the ongoing one. I was inspired by the idea of getting to know and share something more intimate and personal. I really tried to approach making pictures with all these families much like I would with my own family. Prior to making images in Cuba, that is what preoccupied most of my time photographically. And in a way this sense of reverence for my own familial and private space transferred onto these homes I was welcomed into.
When I would ask to make a picture with someone, it was as if I was asking my own grandmother. It was important to me that we make something together we’d both enjoy, more a collaboration than anything else. I just don’t think I could make images any other way. I’m an educator as well as an artist and it is something I tell my students when I teach and something I believe in strongly: we make a picture, we do not take it. Sometimes people think because they have a camera they have the right to take an image of whatever they please. I just don’t see it that way. We have the privilege and the honor.
AC: Have you spoken with your friends there about recent politics and the loosening of restrictions?
MG: The only time I ever talk about political things with friends there, or really anything pertaining to the government, is when I am there in person, within someone’s private home. A safe place for someone to say how they feel and have a real conversation. So in short, I have not asked those questions that might possibly make someone feel uncomfortable to answer through email or on Facebook. Not that I am paranoid but, given the history Cuba has had, it’s fair to be cautious.
AC: Besides Isabel, did you keep in contact with any of the families you stayed with?
MG: Oh my goodness, yes! I go back and stay with many of the families I have stayed with before—or if not to stay, then just to stop in to visit and bring photos we have made together as well as catch up on all the new things that are happening with their family. Email is my main way of staying in contact once I am here, but it’s been even more fun since some family members have friended me on Facebook—which happened because normalization between our two countries has begun.
AC: Do you have plans to continue working in Cuba?
MG: I’ll always want to go back. There are days where this urge is stronger than others, like a part of me has permanently taken root there, and taken root within my soul as well. Sounds cheesy, but I really feel that. Cuba is a heart place for me now. So I suppose the answer to that is yes. How and when that will take form, I do not really know. But I do believe there is always more, even if I am perfectly content with what is.