Chance and Desire: Havana in Black & White
To celebrate the publication of her stunning collection of photographs of Havana, T.K. Hernández is interviewed by Aaron Kelly, Coordinator of the Irish Chapter of the Network in Defence of Humanity
AK: Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed about your brilliant collection of evocative photographs, Chance and Desire: Havana in Black & White (2020). It’s a real honour to be able to talk with you about your work. One of the many remarkable things about the collection is that you took the photographs across quite a long period of time (2002-2019), and yet you retain a really lucid and striking stylistic and compositional consistency. Could you tell us a bit about your own, quite distinctive, and alluring aesthetic of street documentation, your decision to work in black and white, and what factors drew you to your fine photographic vocation in the first place?
TKH: I think the consistency in style may have to do with my way of seeing things. My perspective. My vision. That may be a difficult thing to change in an individual. Cities excite me, I am concerned with truth. I also work in colour but for this book I wanted black and white. I wanted it to be hardcore truth and have the impact and “grittiness” typically found in street or war photography. Although the latest trend in street photography has been to use colour, I have been heavily influenced in my life by the work of Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson. My photos in this book are also a kind of reaction against the sudden proliferation of HDR resolution images of Havana that emerged in the Obama years. They give a kind of “Disneyland” perspective, to me, anyways. Yes, they are nice, but Havana doesn’t look like that.
What drew me to photography? I’m not sure exactly. Photography is in my family. And I have an “eye.” I realized this early on in my work. I become breathless when I am in a foreign place/city and have a camera in hand. I want to capture the memory because I may never return again. I need this kind of permanence in a transcendent world. Photography is a way of immortalizing memory. I am extremely interested in people and, although this book is not in colour, colour excites me immensely. I am currently working on two books, one has nothing to do with photography and the other is my photography and it’s in brilliant colour.
AK: At some level, the collection is a personal hymn to the wonderful city of Havana. You mention in your introduction to the book that the words, ‘I’m in Havana and I’ve never felt more alive. I feel like I can breathe’, scribbled on a wall at the Anacaona Restaurant of the Hotel Saratoga, left a lasting impression on you. The interplay between that evocative, lasting impression and the idea of transience – the anonymity of the lost author of those words, your chance encounter with those words, the fact that those words themselves will be rewritten, or erased, or painted over – is very apt for your work itself. Your photographs memorialise moments, they exquisitely transmute transience into lasting stills: is this something you feel photography is particularly well suited to achieving? And do you feel Havana as a place is itself particularly given to this kind of celebration of life and its vicissitudes?
TKH: Memory is very important to me. I want to remember an exact moment in time, a moment I am sure will never return. Only photography or film can do that. Havana and its people are spontaneous, so yes, in Havana there is this sense of celebration of life in the moment; a camera has to be quick. But life anywhere is not always happy, like anywhere else. Sometimes I capture that too. Sometimes there is pain and I think, briefly, I have connected with these moments in others, too.
AK: Part of your avowed mission was to go beyond a touristic view of the city (both in terms of the locations or people featured but also your style and technique): so, were you particularly mindful of prevailing, imperialist representations of Cuba and the need to avoid reiterating these? I am thinking not only of anodyne travel industry commodifications but also the sustained effort by the US for over 6 decades to misrepresent Cuba as a “regime”, as a “dictatorship”, a “human rights violator” etc. Were those kinds of long-established discourses about Cuba easy to avoid?
TKH: I’ve been going to Cuba since 1985. I’ve never seen it as a dictatorship, I’ve had immense freedom in Cuba. I’ve been an accredited journalist in Cuba. I’ve never been “followed” or “wire-tapped” or whatever. I go where I want; do what I want and I write and say what I want. I am spontaneous. I’m married to a Cuban, I have family in Cuba. I’ve stayed with family, friends, hotels, resorts, casa particulars and travelled extensively from east to west and north to south. I feel I know Cuba. I don’t see Cuba as a human rights violator because all the names currently in the press are paid by a salary by the US government so they are not activists in reality, they are employees, I can’t see it any other way. They share an employee-employer relationship. They do the work, they get paid, some of them quite handsomely paid.
I am acutely aware of the media war against Cuba.
Let me give you an example. I did some photography in Caibarén after the hurricane in 2017. I went there on a whim. But just before this I saw this photograph of an old woman who was wrapped in a towel of the US flag. My husband told me it was a staged photo. I mean, as if this woman could go to the Walmart or Target stores and buy such a towel. “As if.” The photo was obviously staged.
So I went to Caibarién. I took photos there. At that time, I think it was the saddest place in the world. I felt the people’s emotions, they were in shock, they were sad, very quiet.
I’m trying to reflect reality and truth in my work. So, yes, of course, for me it is very easy to avoid long-established discourses about Cuba if you are really honest in your search for reality and truth.
AK: One thing about the US propaganda war against Cuba, an island that the US once treated as its colonial casino and brothel, is that, in addition to its outright falsifications, it also weaponizes decontextualised minutiae as it were, it will pick up on moments of food scarcity or dilapidated infrastructure or poverty as part of an effort to criticise the government or “regime” or “communism” without acknowledging the dire, ongoing consequences of the blockade which continues to this day solely because of the imperial power wielded by the US (as there is no international law legalising these criminal measures as “sanctions”). Given your work is so visually meticulous and sharp in its focus, you really bring moments and minutiae to life in vibrantly detailed ways in the book, were you mindful of any unintended consequences of that street-level focus, that there is a readymade demographic of imperialist eyes ready to appropriate the images for those kinds of decontextualising purposes? I suppose what I am asking, since your work holds together so beautifully through its style across all those years in which the images were shot, is whether there’s a political context, that might well be off-camera of course, that might gather the photographs together too? I guess you can’t control how the images will be interpreted? Misappropriated? Misused?
TKH: No I wasn’t mindful of the fact of any unintended consequences. I photograph what I see and sometimes that moment happens very quickly. Cuba is many things. There is poverty. There is humanity. I tried to connect to this. The poverty is a result of 60 plus years of an economic embargo/blockade. No modern, first world nation could last very long with a blockade/embargo. One economics professor I know told me that, for example, if Belgium was blocked, their economy would crash in about four days.
In Havana I photographed the street, the people. Others do this, too, in other cities. A certain style of photography reveals the grittiness of life, the angst of a person, some who may experience a lot of disappointment and pain at a particular stage of their life. These situations are universal.
Since I first went to the city of Havana, maybe in 2002, the government has been renovating these lovely architectural structures. It’s a continuous process. Rome wasn’t built in a day. There are other cities I’ve been to which are in ruins or have experienced decades of poor performing economies. I’m thinking of Detroit (though its been in a process of renovating), or Venice or some cities in Greece.
And, of course, we have the pandemic now and to discuss this, is a whole different topic.
I mean, if you look at the work of, let’s say, Diana Arbus. If you decided to interpret and generalize these photos as an example of American life and its people… You would be entirely misinterpreting the work of this photographer. Only the ignorant would do this.
AK: In terms of how Havana’s residents, and Cubans more widely, keep on keeping on in spite of the blockade, one of the most arresting and moving exchanges across the photographs in the collection is ‘The Man with a Parrot’, whom you encountered in 2011 and then again in 2015, in both instances by chance of course. Across those encounters both the humanity of your subjects and indeed the sensitive compassion of your technique come across most vividly. It’s clear that your brief meetings with this man crystallize key facets of your book as a whole and allowed you to consider the collection and its meaning to you: would you like to tell us about what those images and the fleeting meetings that they capture mean to you?
TKH: As you said, there were four years between my first encounter with the man with a parrot and the second. The first thing that drew me near to him was the parrot on his shoulder because (I know this sounds ridiculous, but I’ve always wanted my own parrot – strange things attract us. I wasn’t even planning on taking any kind of photo). There was this angst in his face in the first image. Maybe that’s just the universal angst of pain of a particular individual’s life in any city, anywhere in the world. Fleeting moments and chance captured that emotional life in his face. Chance presented an old man, bent over in the background, his nose somewhat like the beak of a bird. No one could “pose” or setup a photo like that. I guess I was lucky. And then he was gone.
Meeting him four years later was also by chance. He still had that parrot with him. We talked a bit. I asked if I could take another photo and he said yes. His face was so revealing to me of his inner world. So much hardship and pain etched out by the lines of time and his eyes. I believe the face, as it grows older, manifests the true nature and life of an individual. I think again, I saw this in the resulting photos.
AK: It’s a real testament to your photographs and the overall success of the collection that, although you are of course working in in visual medium, the images are energised by Havana’s noise, smells, sounds, heat, all those necessary ingredients that make the city what it is: how far was it a welcome, creative challenge to be working with photography alongside those other sensory energies and factors?
TKH: Havana is all these things. It is an energising and totally stimulating city. I’m sure that those things give people the sense of “feeling so alive.” That energy probably propels my vision.
AK: With regard to the visual imagination of the photographs, could you tell us something about Havana itself, visually, architecturally and spatially? It’s a city where different worlds collide (First World / Third World), different epochs and eras, different cultures locally and transnationally. Were there particular aspects of the city’s complex fabric that you wanted to convey in the collection?
TKH: The architecture, the colours and the light fascinates me. I mean, I love the architecture, there is an air of the European city to me here, the arches over the sidewalks, the iron fretwork, the surprise of the art deco buildings. There is a special amber light here. Maybe that’s a reason I love the city. The blending of cultures is comforting and gives the city a sense of the thrill of fullness. It is all these things. You’d have to climb off the tourbus to find these things.
AK: The book includes human subjects, objects (‘Flora and Car’ 2016 is a particularly sublime shot and juxtaposition), places and landscapes (interiors as well as beaches, swimming pools etc): do you maintain similar technical and aesthetic strategies for all these? As I mentioned earlier, your style gathers all the different images together into your photographic protectorate really seamlessly, hospitably and cohesively: was that just part of the instinctual, ‘take a chance’ talent that you have (which I realise also requires patience, perseverance and judgement in taking the right kind of chances) or did you also do much work with the images in production after they were shot?
TKH: I have this feeling about my work: I see, I shoot, I pray (that what I see turns out to be a great image). I’m not very technical, but I have “an eye.” The photo of the car with the plant, it was just there. I saw it, I found it interesting so I pressed the shutter. The swimming pool at the Riviera, same thing there. I saw the light on the wet pavement around the pool. I saw, I shot, I prayed. I’m not very patient and perseverance and judgement don’t come into it. I just see it and I shoot.
Post production, I may have sharpened or heightened the contrast in some images. Also, some of these photos were originally taken in colour. Because I wanted to create something under the theme of black and white, I removed that colour.
I think there’s not much technical about my process. The only strategy I have is the ability to “see” something followed by the immediate act of taking the photograph. I have to be stimulated by my environment, otherwise everything I take is just a snapshot, nothing else. And some people are just “photogenic” in their presence. I find them beautiful in a unique way.
Needless to say with this pandemic, I’ve been “house-bound,” and if anything, I’ve only produced a bunch of snapshots lately. Nothing exciting. I’m totally envious of all those who are stranded now in beautiful faraway places.
AK: The book is testament to your ability and to Havana itself: do you think (or perhaps you already know) that you will return to Havana or Cuba for future projects?
TKH: Yes, I will definitely return to Havana and the rest of Cuba. I love the country, it is very stimulating for my work and art. I have two other projects I did in Cuba that I haven’t had time to work on yet.
AK: The US blockade seeks to set up economic barriers against the island and of course imperialism also seeks (with less success thankfully) to blockade ideas, culture, solidarity: so, is there something you would like to communicate – in the book itself and in this interview – to the rest of the world about Cuba and its people, especially given how inhumane the blockade is and how imperialism seeks to dehumanize and to short-circuit people’s capacity to share their humanity?
TKH: Well, one has be aware and remember what the goal of the US government is. That was established in 1960. The goal was identified, in black and white, on paper – to create misery, suffering and despair for the Cuban people. What kind of despicable person would say that? I find that very disgusting. I’m not very political but I do find that to be disgusting as a policy per se. It sort of destroys a nation’s credibility right from the get-go.
AK: Thank you very much for taking the time to be interviewed by the Irish Chapter of the Network in Defence of Humanity. It is a great please to talk with you. I would recommend your fine book to anyone: it’s a very beautiful, haunting, and sustained illumination of a palimpsestic city and its mesmeric movement and enchanting energy. Go raibh míle maith agat.
TKH: Thank you so much for this opportunity Aaron. Nice to connect with you.
To buy the book or to find out more about T.K.’s work visit: https://www.tkhernandez.com/
The U.S foreign policy referred to in the interview is distilled in the 1960 memo from Lester D. Mallory, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, which discloses the use of hunger as a weapon of war as part of the criminal blockade of Cuba.