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Faces of Cuba, identities of Boston

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.


  1. I’ve noticed this in southern Italy, too. On the face of things people seem so open and expansive – but it’s just physical. It takes much, much more to get to the truth of the person behind their gestures.  The Americans and the English are far more willing, I think, to discuss their inner feelings and to label themselves as one thing or the other.

    • Katja, that is very interesting. I actually have not noticed “regional” patterns or motifs to these behaviors. The inaccessibility of Cuba was not due to the distancing of the Cuban people themselves; rather, it was a symptom of a system whereby tourists hang out with tourists and locals with locals. I noticed it especially when I was there, but I will keep an eye out when I travel following your observations on expansiveness and openness.

      • Ah, I see what you mean. It’s possible that’s where I’m coming from as well – after all I’m the stranger here, albeit a resident one. It’s taken me nearly 9 months to get to the point where I hang out with the locals. Not because I didn’t want to, but because of the difficulties of doing so.  This has a lot to do with my language limitations (frustrating – how do you get to know local people without being able to speak their language well, and how do you get better at the language without talking to native speakers?), as well as the fact that this is a very small town. Everyone here has known each other since they were babies and so have very tight-knit existing friendships which are, by their very nature, exclusive of outsiders. It’s not malicious, but it’s hard when you’re the one outside looking in. 

  2. noelrozny says

    Love these photos, as always! Goodness!

    Regarding identities … it really does seem to just depend on the reality of the place and how it’s interpreted there, doesn’t it? I notice even subtle shifts in this in my two hometowns–where I grew up and where I made my home. 

    • Noel, I love being able to see a photo of your face in my comments — it makes the new commenting system so worth it 🙂 I agree that our description of our identities shifts when we move, when we are around new groups, when we are triggered by new influences and inspired by new people and places. Chronicling the shift is, itself, an instructive process. 

  3. Ahh identity. It dances around us flirting and toying with us trying to catch us or is it the other way around? I’m never certain but it keeps us on our toes. As always, the pictures are wonderful and your writing exquisite. Your experiences heart-and-soul-opening.

    • It keeps us on our toes — that is the right way to put it, Tracy. I have to say, most of the time, I do appreciate being kept alert like that. It is only when we do not fit neatly into any one box that it all gets confusing… but it is the kind of discomfort that I am learning to embrace. Thank you, as always, for your ceaseless support and encouragement.

  4. Lovely photos! And the tip from Robert Capa is something I would keep in mind, I hope it would work for me=) Me and my friends are planning to visit Cuba very soon I’ve always thought it would be a nice and exciting place to visit, it was such colorful place.

    • Thank you, Cindy! I hope you and your friends have a wonderful time in Cuba, and that there are plenty of opportunities to apply Robert Capa’s advice.

  5. “I know less and want more.” — Yes, Liz. This, exactly. It would be a real treat to hear your Cuba story. Thank you for sending me some links so I can start reading about it; I am always intrigued by your stories — as well as by hearing about how others have found love and/or their voice. 

  6. Clare, I really hope you make it there. As I have said before, it can be scarred and scarring, magical and haunting. Perhaps therein lies its force: its contradictory duality draws us all in. 

  7. Kyle, I thought about the Ambos Mundos ambiguity every time I walked past it. It is a bright, bubble-gum pink building and Ernest Hemingway wrote some of his more famous books in one of its rooms. Two worlds, indeed. 

    I am not even sure how to begin telling the Cuba story, or how much of it I can tell, but it is always a privilege sharing it with you. Thank you for encouraging the photo-taking; I learn from your keen eye and imaginative clicking every single day.

  8. Marjory, I do think of countries as living organisms — you are right. It is because, in their collective sense, they are. Cuba did retreat and unfold and perhaps that is why I am so fascinated with it (her?)  It is definitely not the kind of place that one leaves and never thinks about again. Thank you for your sweet words; you have my heart as well. 

  9. Such intimacy. I feel like I just entered something precious, a window into a moment that grabs my heart and doesn’t let go.

    I love love how you talk of Cuba as a living organism. This is how I feel about places, they posses me on a visceral level beyond labels. We are more than the sum of our parts. Perhaps is a matter of weaving whimsically, even in a surreal way all the disparate parts.

    “On another level, Cuba retreats into herself.” Love that you speak of Cuba as her. Like her..sometimes advancing and sometimes receding, a constant ebb and flow. Love your voice Roxanne, your vision, the way you touch the world through your art. You got my heart dearest.

  10. These are some amazing photos Roxanne. I think you have as much of a gift for telling stories through images as you do through words.

    Oh, and that first shot, I like the title, “Ambos Mundos.” Makes you wonder if it’s a deliberate play on words on the way things are in Cuba.

    Looking forward to hearing more about this trip!

  11. You make my head spin, my heart ache, with your words & your photographs. This is the place where I found my love, my voice 12 years ago, it is also the place that I’ve visited the most so far outside of the USA & every time I go, I know less & want more.

  12. Akhila, I find – through my blog comments alone, if nothing else! – that the labels are difficult for everyone. Sometimes they are not reflective of our story, and sometimes we are too shy to claim them. Thank you for your encouragement in navigating this territory.

    Leslie, welcome to Stories of Conflict and Love! I am so thrilled that you commented. “Todo porque te amo…” I do have a penchant for taking love photos around the world; I published a whole photoessay on love last December. I like the little man with the Te Quiero bubble above his head as well. Thank you very much for commenting and I hope we get to see you here again soon!

    Iwanna, I hadn’t even thought about the rolled up T-shirts and abdominal muscle till you brought it up, but I just realized you are so right. T-shirts in Cuba could be a photoessay all on their own (what with the guy who “shaved his balls” and all!) Ευχαριστώ για τα καλά σου λόγια πάντα — είμαι ευγνώμων που με διαβάζουν άτομα με τη δική σου καλοσύνη και τις δικές σου ευαισθησίες!

  13. We called the rolled up t-shirt in men “going Cuban”, I have never before in my life seen so many men rocking this style, proudly displaying all range of abdominal muscle.

    The photos are adorable, but, really, no surprise there. By now you have reached this point where a Roxanne piece or a Roxanne photograph describes its level of beauty and soul by definition. Δεν χορταίνω να σε διαβάζω 🙂

    Σε φιλώ

  14. Amazing Photos! My favorites are the musicians in front of the sign “todo porque te amo” and the shirtless men playing dominos. The dominos one looks like a common scene in China: shirtless men, or those with their shirts rolled up over their bellies (“the Beijing bikini,” as my friend Lauren calls it) playing mahjong.

    The photos also remind me a bit of this photoessay by my friend Colleen Kinder, who spent some time in Cuba interviewing ancianos in a nursing home: http://bit.ly/mOmS45

    I love your blog. I think this is my first comment!

  15. As always, beautiful pictures and storytelling, Roxanne.

    And I too am afraid of claiming labels for myself – like feminist, activist, writer, etc. I sometimes feel afraid – because such labels hold oneself to high standards. But you, Roxanne, are an incredible writer, activist, photographer, feminist… so I think you should loudly and proudly claim those titles for your own!

  16. Kim, I love your commitment to telling the whole story: embracing the labels when they help, leaving them behind when they hold us back. Thank you for your ceaseless belief in me. You keep me honest and optimistic, and you keep me writing. I could not be more indebted to you for that.

    Mary, “own them, love” is just what I needed to hear. And what do you know — the last photo is my favorite as well. I took approximately ten shots of it. I walked by it every day and could simply not resist.

  17. I love the last picture: the art, the crumbling wall, the message, the light. It’s gorgeous.

    I agree with Kim. You are certainly all of those labels and more. Own them, love.

  18. Once again, these are incredible photos. Well done!

    As for labels and identities: The best things about them are that no one ever wears just one and that they never tell the whole story. You are all of those things and you will add more identities in time, the way you add stamps in your passport.

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