Excerpts from a personal email I sent last week:
I went out on my first solo excursion last Wednesday, to Centro Habana which we’d seen in passing, but I was curious to explore more, because it is the one part of Havana which has not yet been renovated or restored. It reminded me a bit of Liberdade, Salvador in its crowded life and energy. The buildings look like all those old photographs I have seen of La Habana. Women on their balconies, clothes hanging outside of the windows, cats perched on rails, dogs racing across the street, and of course the old cars.
Exploring on my own is always nerve-wracking, no matter how brave I would like to think myself to be. I don’t like looking like a tourist, or like I don’t know what I’m doing, because it draws unwanted attention. At the same time, I want to look at everything, soak in the world through all senses. I want to talk to people, but that can be terrifying. If maybe I can at times pass as not American, I know that the minute I open my mouth will be a dead give away. Having a school and projects and connections is helpful to getting over that fear, though. It’s okay to mess up my Spanish with people who already expect me to be learning.
Before leaving on this little mini excursion, I asked my Professor Gerardo how to get to Centro Habana por Maquina (Maquinas are these cars that almost act as bus lines, you flag them down like taxis on specific streets and they will drop you off anywhere along their specific route). He broke out into a long discussion about safety, of course. Cuba is very safe, he says, but you should always be aware of your personal items. He talked to me about cultural differences and to keep in mind that to call someone “gorda” or “china” or “mulatta” here doesn’t have the same overt offensive implications as it does in the states. He also mentioned that it’s helpful to tell people that you are a student and not just an American. He says that the same way many Americans are raised to think of Cuba and communism in a negative light, many Cubans are brought to think poorly of America and capitalism. The point being I guess that there are vast generalizations and misconceptions on both ends.
I only took a few photos when I was out because I am always probably too aware of my position of privilege when I photograph. What right do I have to take a photo of a person whose experience I don’t really know? What of my assumptions am I projecting into the photograph and how will that affect the way my viewers receive it? At the same time, by asking, by waiting, by being fearful of abusing my privilege, I probably miss many shareable moments. But honestly, I would rather be a little bit more wary at first, and establish a certain level of intimacy than be yet another exploitative American photographer. It’s a weird balance to find, and I’m sure I’ll only continue to struggle with it as time goes on.