Friday, September 14, 2012

Old school Cuban souvenirs

Like many photographers, I loathe having my photograph taken and even during my overseas trips with fellow photographers, the travel snaps rarely include me in the picture. But sometimes it just has to be done. A fellow photographer and sometimes traveling companion, Dan Grant, recently showed me a link to the AfghanBox Camera Project and it reminded me of one of my favourite souvenirs from my trip to Cuba in 2002.
Portrait taken on the footsteps of the Capitolio building in Havana by Senor Benito (Silver-gelatin print)
Half a century of American embargos had left Cuba trapped in a time warp… crumbling Spanish colonial and 20th century Art Deco architecture lined streets filled with Batista era American gas guzzlers. A photographer’s paradise but the embargo also had it’s human cost and the life of the average Cuban was and continues to be a struggle. One of the locals I met was senor Benito who, along with about half a dozen Cuban photographers was taking souvenir snaps for the, mainly European, tourists visiting the Capitolio building in Havana. In 2002 digital photography was far from widespread, but for these guys it wasn’t only an abstract notion, it was but an impossible dream.
Senor Benito waiting for customers with his home-made camera/darkroom. Havana, Cuba November 2002 (Silver-Gelatine print with postage stamp)
Benito’s predicament was simple, in order to earn a living he had to provide the tourists with a product that they could walk away with and the embargo meant that even accessing (the then still available) Polaroid film was impossible. So the solution was to build a camera and darkroom in one… A light tight box ,large enough to hold his B&W photographic paper, two small trays to contain developer and fixer as well as a lens and film plane... the "Cuban Polaroid". The video of the Afghan photographers, at the bottom of the page, shows the same set up in more detail.
First stage of the process, the original paper negative photographed and developed inside the box camera. (Silver-gelatin print)
To take my portrait, he made me sit on the steps, checked focus and then took the first frame by calculating the exposure time in his head then manually removing and replacing the lens cap. Benito then placed his hands into the box, developed and fixed it in camera, before removing the resulting paper negative for a (very) quick wash, in a bucket below, to remove the excess fixer. He then flipped the L shaped arm that was under the camera so that it would provide a base for the negative, strategically placed the ‘Habana Cuba’ text and an image of the top of the building on the neg, took another photograph and went through the process again. Voila a B&W souvenir of Havana… for the total cost of US$2. It was fascinating to watch and hear Benito talk about the difficulties that he faces in a country where finding even basic necessities can be difficult. Developer and fixer came from a friend who worked at the hospital and for photographic paper, he relied on the good will of friends and returning travelers to bring some back from overseas… and making it through customs without it being deliberately exposed by vindictive or over zealous immigration officials… a regular occurrence, he told me.

When I look at my Cuban pictures, I often wonder how Senor Benito is going these days. The photos that he and his colleagues made were unique and like Cuba itself, harked back to a bygone era. But the process that he employed was used out of necessity, not choice. For him and his colleagues they had no alternatives. A decade has passed and these days every tourist visiting Havana is likely to have a digital camera. Is he still hanging around the steps of the Capitolio producing these unique souvenirs or has he somehow managed to move into the 21st century? Maybe Cim Sears who is going on Jack Picone and Steve Dupont’s photographer’s workshop to Cuba later this year will be able to let me know when she returns? I daresay that if Benito and his colleagues are still there, Steve who produced a beautiful series of Polaroid street portraits in Afghanistan, will hear stories that mirror those of the Afghan Kamra-e-faoree photographers.

I’m not sure if there are any documentaries on the Cubans, but if you’re interested in the cameras and the Afghan street photographers who use this process to create their portraits, check out the
Afghan Box Camera Project. It’s filled with interesting information and even instructions on how to build your own Box camera. And make sure that you check out their video below