If your picture is not good enough, you are not close enough.
This was Robert Capa’s advice to photographers. Cuba is uncomfortable with earnest proximity. On one level, notions of intimacy and privacy bear different connotations on this island. Displays of affection are all public, rendering the phrase “public displays of affection” irrelevant. It is merely affection, of the only kind there is. Cuba can be all public all the time.
On another level, Cuba retreats into herself. Her texture and layers are accessible only to those born into this exclusive club. To some, the exclusivity is a privilege; to others, a damnation. Some spend their whole lives trying to leave; others strive to burrow their way back in.The intimacy that Capa encourages is not reserved for outsiders. “Get closer” is a dangerous proposition.
A few hundred miles north of Havana, in Boston, MA, I have spent the week around individuals engaged in non-violent civil resistance from Azerbaijan to Madagascar and Bulgaria to Mexico. These people humble and inspire me, not only with their life stories, but also with the unabashed way in which they “get closer.” On the first day, I heard them all claim the identities I have been too scared to articulate while working in conflict and post-conflict zones. “I am an activist,” says one. “I am a writer,” says another. “I am a feminist.” “I am a photographer.” “I am a journalist.” “I am a human rights defender.”Cuba blurs one’s vision – and does so in a way that feels deliberate. I have returned from there in a fog, with a hampered ability to “name parts,” as the Henry Reed poem would have it. Watching identities be claimed with pride, resilience and fearlessness all around me is clearing the clouds.