For Part 2 of our Q&A with noted photographer Robert McCabe, we asked about the experiences surrounding his first book with Abbeville Press, Weekend in Havana: An American Photographer in the Forbidden City. Published in 2007 in a trilingual edition featuring English, Spanish, and Greek, the book is a moving photographic celebration of Havana and its people. McCabe shared his recollections of the project’s origins and reflected on the slow change that has come to Cuba in recent years.
Q. How were you able to gain entry to the country to conduct your photographic campaign, and what was your experience like as a photographer there?
A. I was unexpectedly in Havana on a friend’s boat. We hadn’t planned to go but when we learned that we could visit Cuba as Americans as long as we didn’t spend any money the decision was easy. I didn’t even have a camera with me so I borrowed our daughter’s Nikon with its unusual Macro lens which she uses for archaeological photography. But it was perfect for street photography. What attracted me was the fact there were few tourists and we were getting a glimpse of the real Havana under Fidel Castro’s brand of communism. People were earning $20 to $30 a month. (They still are.) Many basics were rationed. While no one stopped me from taking photos, a local photographer was sentenced to 26 years in jail for sending unflattering photos out of Cuba. Most people welcomed my taking photos of them. The notable exception was a man covered in oil working under the hood of his car. I couldn’t blame him.
The owner of the boat I was on told the port authorities that we could only visit Havana if they would allow us to dock in Old Havana. If we had gone to the Marina we would have had to spend money on transportation into Havana. So they agreed and we ate and slept on the boat, and simply walked around the city. We had a berth on a renovated pier right at the edge of the old city.
Q. How have the politics and social climate of the country changed in recent decades?
A. Fidel has retired, but the regime is still harsh with dissidents. Entrepreneurs have many more opportunities now and can earn decent money if they can find a position in the tourist industry.
Things have opened up now and many U.S. groups go to Cuba on study tours. There are many many tourists from Europe and Canada.
Q. I was struck by the graffito in one of your photographs that translates as “Here, we don’t want masters.” How would you interpret this?
A. I am afraid the “Here, we don’t want masters” was a pure propaganda slogan put up by the government.
Images by Robert McCabe. All rights reserved. Click here to purchase a copy of Weekend in Havana, published by Abbeville Press.