Cuba in Revolution, at the International Center of Photography (September 24 – January 9, 2010) shows a chronological story of photos from political events surrounding the Cuban Revolution of 1959 such as the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The exhibition jumbles a huge range of propagandist photos, journalistic photos, and everyday portraits together into one show. Moreover, it displays the facets of the revolution that not everyone could see–the symbolic, the historical, and the sentimental. However, the absence of context was problematic for me.
I especially liked the photo of the drunk American in Cuba’s pre-revolutionary years, under the Fulgencio Batista regime. It was interesting to see the stark contrast of the images of poverty and political unrest in Havana paired with scenes of wealthy tourists taking advantage of the night life in Havana.
“The Years of Struggle and Victory” subseries shows scenes of rebels in guerilla warfare, and Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s emergence in the revolution. In this segment, I saw stylistic differences in the Cuban and American photographers documentations of the Cuban people. The photos taken by American photographers showed: the aerial views of the soldiers, the backs of civilians running to find Batista’s secret police, and Castro speaking at a podium, shot from a perspective that was below the podium. Meanwhile, the Cuban photographers’ photos were much closer up and showed an intimate framing of Fidel Castro. The famous Cuban photographer Luis Korda’s Fidel Castro and Comandante Camilo Cienfuegos entering Havana, January 8, 1959 (shown below) shows Castro with an expression of deep concern conversing with the commander.
Another room presented photos of Che Guevara’s death titled “Che Guevera: Death and Rebirth of an Icon”. These photos documented the death of Che Guevara, yet symbolism is read in photos of him depicted as a Christ-like figure. Both rooms exhibited portraits of the leader that humanized, and at the same time portrayed them as religious icons.
The exhibit also sheds a different light on Che and Castro, redefining them as more than just Communist revolutionaries, but as heroes. I was left with the idea of the revolution and its profound impact on Cuban society, as well as the world. The photo below shows Che Guevara in a hotel room having the local Cuban drink called mate.
Flip Schulke’s photo Hats and Machetes in Revolution Square during the July 26th celebrations in the first year of the triumph of the Revolution, Havana is shown fairly near the end of the exhibit. Placed in the middle of the series titled “Picturing the Cuban People” and shown along various portraits of individuals and groups, this powerful image captures the spirit of the Cuban revolution. Although it is a celebration of the first year of the Revolution, the photo shows many arms held up high in unity all in fighting gestures. The strong upward lines convey an optimistic image of hope and upward mobility. The hats and machetes were symbols of revolution for the Cuban people. They showed the united common people of Cuba, militarized in defiance.
Shown alongside Flip Schulke’s photo, was Alberto Korda’s famous image of La Nina. The little girl staring out naïvely and carrying a doll made of wood was very touching. It images another side of the revolution and its effects on the younger generation.
I can’t help but wonder who saw these images? Were they strictly journalistic or propagandistic? Which of these images were shown to the Cuban public, and which to the international sphere? I think the curators aimed to show a non-biased view of the revolution, constantly juxtaposing opposing views of the revolution and the views of its leaders. The dichotomies and clashing ideas of the photos of the revolution, suggest the idea of photography as a means of promoting various ideologies and sentiments.