Of Absence and Oblivion

Absence means oblivion,
it means darkness, it means never.
(Traditional Cuban song)

At the end of last year, Tim Wrider, curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), invited me to take part in an exhibition of Cuban photography being prepared by the museum and finally inaugurated in April of the present year with the name of “Changing Currents: Cuban Photography after the Revolution.”

On the one hand, I fully understand the significance for any creator of linking his or her name to a prestigious institution such as the LACMA, and on the other hand, the idea was important in itself. In any case, all I needed to do was to ensure that the epic and apologetic discourse in which my photographs would inevitably be placed was contextualized and located within its past reality, inconceivable and unrepeatable in present day Cuba.

We looked for ways of achieving those goals, but in the end, in spite of Wride’s understanding, he could not guarantee anything to this effect and in the end I decided not to participate in the exhibition. It is now my intention to explain to the community of photographers, especially to those that did participate, the reasons that led me to take that position. As has been pointed out, it was nothing personal. In the final analysis, perhaps many of them would also have liked to articulate their own discourse.

Among the many circumstances surrounding my photography, there is one that has left its mark on me like that of “the iron brand on the bull”. I am referring to the spatial and temporal coincidence of the photographer with his or her subject as a necessary requisite for the fact of photography, or at least of documentary, to be produced. In other words, one could say that the photograph of Matías Pérez’s famous ascent in a hot-air balloon does not exist because the Korda of his days was not there, in the Campo Marte of Havana, on that evening of Holy Thursday, with his camera and magnesium, when Matías “flew away like Matías Pérez”. However, on the first of January of '59, I was in Havana bidding farewell to my adolescent years with a “loaded” camera and a strong desire to use it.

The social commotion unleashed by Batista’s flight and Fidel Castro’s subsequent entrance to Havana exaggerated the value of the documentary in Cuban photography. There, within reach, there was a world expressing itself with the passion and eloquence of someone who “having defeated the night, saluted dawn”. “What a fine poet!”, I would tell a neighbor from El Cerro. “Yeah, but take my photo, right here. Look!” And he would strike a pose next to a flag. Thus, at every step, reality forced itself on us. There was not much to think about, we just had to release the shutter button and there they were: images brimming with happy and hopeful people, making an effort to reclaim and straighten out a society that had been traumatized by crime and corruption.

It goes without saying that at the time, I had no idea what “the collective memory of a nation” was, or what its “visual history” was, or anything of the sort. However, I had taken my job as a “chronicler” very seriously and during the first two years (59 and 60), I lived on the street twenty-four hours a day. I felt lucky to be there, in the midst of so much effervescence, to be able to photograph all those ordinary people from the neighborhood, true popular heroes validated by seven years risking their necks in the dangerous struggle against Batista’s tyranny. I was part of that elation and my identification with those events is revealed in my photographs. They show a world that is portrayed with the infinite affection that I feel for my friends, for my people, and with the admiration I felt for the people of the Sierra and their legends, and for Fidel Castro’s words, full of justice back then.

Over time, this story took a path contrary to its beginnings, and modern-day Cuba, unrecognizable in appearance and lost in its own projection, is the complete opposite of that hopeful reality.

From the standpoint of museology, the period of my work that has the most significance in the broad panorama of a retrospective of Cuban photography is the period between the years 1959 and 1962. That period complements the photographs of Alberto Korda, Raul Corrales, Osvaldo Salas, as well as giving some sort of generational continuity to the work of Constantino Arias and José Tabio. Hence the interest in my photographs, my alleged “glory” and my ensuing disgrace because of the persisting difference of opinion I maintain with the dualist convention of placing authors in pigeonholes.

I have been expressing myself through images for too long to ignore the emotional impact of a photograph, its ability to convince and even lie if it is tied to certain contexts and, above all, when it is placed in the vicinity of what could have been an admirable feat. I am also aware of the extent to which judgment can be impaired by the artificial extension of a reality in the “virtual” time of the photographic “fable”.

I know the feelings my images can awaken and I do not want them to contribute, with the wrong message, to distorting the perception of the tyrannical nature ruling my country’s current reality, covering it with a cheerful and "artistic" veil.

I simply do not want to be an accomplice of so many “discoverers” that get rich with the material poverty of the Island’s talented musicians, painters, photographers, carpenters or masons. I do not want to be an accomplice of the well-fed “Left” that is blind and deaf and “loves Cuba so much”, above all its "cute" mulattos and our “well-read whores”. I do not want to be an accomplice of a ruler that causes misfortune and nationalizes responsibility. I do not want to be an accomplice of the ones jailing those who speak of freedom or steal bread. I do not want to be an accomplice of a high government official who sends his French dog to a vet in Paris, nor of the hired assassins that sunk the fateful ferry carrying mothers and children by hosing it down, fearless murderers insensible to innocent horror. I do not want to be an accomplice of the deliberate moral decline of my people, of stealing its self-esteem and the dignity of its citizens.

Finally, I do not want to be an accomplice of guilty apathy nor of my own frustration.

I will keep these images to myself because at the moment I am thinking of collective memory convinced as I am that I was there by accident, that those photographs do not really belong to me, that they belong to my country and its memories. I will keep them until history can be told just as it happened or until, like now at ZoneZero I am invited to exhibit my photographs together with my own discourse.

Mario García Joya