CUBAN ART NEWS: When did you first go to Cuba? What brought you there? How many trips have you taken there in total?
MICHAEL DWECK: My first visit to Havana was in March of 2009, and I made another seven trips in the 14 months that followed.
There’s always a mixture of reasons that bring you to a particular place – for me, beauty is always a factor. In that sense – taken apart from political or social ideas – Cuba has the same draws as other islands in the Caribbean – Jamaica or the Virgin Islands or Antigua. The beaches are stunning, the people are beautiful. It’s just a great place to visit.
Above that though, there’s an appeal to those political and social factors. Preservation attempts by the Cuban regime and isolation techniques by the US government have combined to brand Cuba as this danger, sensual, almost-“lost” island soaked in intrigue and Old World charm. That’s pretty attractive to an artist, especially one with a camera.
CUBAN ART NEWS: Were the photos for Habana Libre shot during one trip, or over more than one? If more than one, how many?
MICHAEL DWECK: I photographed during all eight trips, which might seem like a lot – especially when you consider that I only focused on one group of people in one city – but I could have easily taken another 30 trips and still not covered everything.
CUBAN ART NEWS: What was it about the nature of the project that required that time frame? [In other words, shooting quickly in one trip, or more slowly in more than one trip.]
MICHAEL DWECK: On one hand, I think it takes a bit of time to capture true reflections of any place, any group, any person. Maybe that’s not the case in news photography, where the images are representative of a specific event or reactions to an event – but it’s necessary in work like mine, where I’m trying to present individual lives and social interactions in sync with an overarching narrative.
I always make it clear – to subjects and audiences – that I have no intention of framing my work as documentary. I see it more in cinematic terms, as though these photographs are scenes in a film – and to do that requires time. You need to learn who your characters are, where they’re from, where they’re going… You have to synthesize the plot of their lives and kind of compose the lines as they happen.
The other reason for stretching things out – to stick with the film metaphor – is the fact that I was shooting on location. My subjects were part of a very exclusive group within a foreign country that happened to be under the control of a strict socialist regime. So, I had to learn my boundaries, learn the lay of the land – figuratively and literally – and just develop relationships, build trust, understand the culture, make friends. It took time.
CUBAN ART NEWS: Do you speak Spanish? If so, was it essential to your being able to move through Havana in the way that you did? (If not, it clearly wasn’t essential. Why not?)
MICHAEL DWECK: I understand Spanish better than I speak it. So, I could pick up most of what was being said in conversation and reply with enough Spanish to get by. (Although my wife, who is Argentine, will tell you that I know just enough Spanish to get in trouble.) As time went on, I obviously learned more, and there were usually folks around who could translate if I really hit a wall.
I would say it’s not essential to know Spanish to kick around Havana superficially, but, yeah, if you want to dig in and see some stuff that most tourists don’t, it definitely helps to speak Spanish – or have some well-connected friends.
CUBAN ART NEWS: The book talks about farandulas, circles of friends who intersect and overlap. Could you trace for us how you came to know the people you photographed for the book, and the farandulas that brought you to them?
MICHAEL DWECK: The farandula featured in “Habana Libre” is a group of artists – and by that I mean everything from filmmakers to musicians to painters to actors.
I first met them at a party, completely by chance. A Brit who I’d met at my hotel invited me to this get together at this beautiful villa by the ocean – and it unfolded from there, if a little surreally. There were waves crashing over the seawall and swarms of people dancing to the music of a live band in this thick haze around a turquoise swimming pool – for a photographer looking to capture sensual and cinematic images of Cuba, this was a goldmine.
I didn’t just start snapping photos, though. I mingled and talked and worked my way around the party. As an artist, I shared some common ground with many in the group – some of them knew my name or my work, so that helped me to gain their trust. After that, they were inviting me to parties directly.
CUBAN ART NEWS: How did you meet Rachel Valdes? What is it about her that made her, as you say, your muse for the project?
MICHAEL DWECK: Rachel is younger than a lot of the artists photographed in “Habana Libre.” She was 19 when we met, but her paintings more than earned her a place in the farandula – and the book. And, to be honest, I didn’t even know she was an artist when I first photographed her, so she probably would have ended up in there either way.
But it’s tough to say what it is about someone that inspires you. She had a natural ease in front of the camera and an ability to pose and position herself thatseemed sensual and comfortable at the same time. But that’s just a surface inspiration. I think getting to know her and seeing some of her gorgeous paintings really helped develop the relationship. To be young and beautiful is one thing – to extend that to your creations and present that in another form is what makes one captivating, inspiring.
CUBAN ART NEWS: Despite its emphatic sensuality, the book also advances aclear thesis: that within Cuba’s classless society there is a privileged class that exists by virtue of contacts, connections, and what we might call personal magnetism. Tell us more about this theory. What led you to draw this conclusion? Could you describe what this theory was like in action?
MICHAEL DWECK: To describe the way the farandula works, I’d have to fall back on the almost-incestuous description written in the book’s foreword: “a model dates a photographer who is friends with a musician whose song is chosen by a director for a film with an actor who admires the work of an artist who uses the model for a model.” This is a creative class that is, in many ways, self-contained and self-motivated; some kind of social equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. And yes, contacts and connections are a big part, as is the magnetism you mentioned.
But I think that definition misses out the important point of allowance. It mentions how the group works without addressing why it’s allowed to exist in the first place. In a country where brain surgeons make the same small monthly wage as farmers, it’s no fluke or coincidence that artists are permitted to drink 18-year-old rum and dance in the nightclubs every night. Fidel is a self-described patron of the arts – and, for better or worse, a public relations machine. Accordingly, he allows these artists what I call “a system of privilege based on talent.” If you can paint, if you can sing, if you can dance – you can have an iPhone, you can travel, you can spend. That’s the real reason this seems to exist – talent permits it.
CUBAN ART NEWS: In their interviews, several of the people you portray voice a certain ambivalence about Cuba’s interactions with the rest of the world, and you yourself cite the paradox of a socialist creative class being dependent on capitalism to sell what they produce. Could you talk about this contradiction a bit, and how Cubans deal with it?
MICHAEL DWECK: I think, for starters, the ambivalence you mention is a product of the government that trickles down. It forces Cubans to deal with things like scarcities, travel restrictions and the realities of being one of the world’s last true “islands,” in the same way Cubans deal with everything: They take extra pride in identity, accept what truly can’t be changed and go on with life – they sing, write, cook, make love. After a while, it’s not a distraction any longer, it’s just a way of life. It’s not necessary ambivalence - it’s more “external;” the same way I might be ambivalent about living in a utopian colony in a different galaxy. It sounds nice, but not possible and thus, easy to dismiss.
As far as the contradiction of the privileges of a socialist class depending on global capitalism – I’m not sure it’s something that these artists consciously “deal with.” They seem to, again, just accept what it means to be an artist, the same way the farmer accepts what it means to be a farmer. The latter can attract funding from Spain and the former grows sugar for the government. I’m sure they – the artists – feel lucky in a sense and wish certain things were different in another, but there’s not much they can say or do – especially when they’re living in the shadow of Fidel.
CUBAN ART NEWS: From your experiences there, what impresses you most about Cuba?
MICHAEL DWECK: Oh, I could go on forever listing my favorite things: the seduction in the air, the true joy of the people, the beautiful woman, the ubiquitous talent, the jazz, the light and the way it dances with the air’s humidity, the urgency and coolness of lovers on the Malecon, the food.
It’s all in the book – all the beauty of the whole film is there in ways I could never describe with words.
CUBAN ART NEWS: What impresses you least?
MICHAEL DWECK: Hmmm. How about: when I get back to my apartment in Verdado after 18 hours of shooting in 95-degree heat and I have to lug all my equipment up 13 flights of steps in the dark because the elevators broke again. I’m sure you can extrapolate from there…
CUBAN ART NEWS: What do you think Cuba will be like ten years from now?
MICHAEL DWECK: It’s easy to make wishes and hard to make predictions. Dictatorships have a tendency to tow a lasting status quo with a long fuse – and when the flame runs out of fuse, things explode. If that happens in Cuba in the next ten years, the end result is anyone’s guess.
In recent months though, we’ve seen a lot of change with regard to social and economic policy. Cubans can buy and sell houses and property, they can have cell phones, they can receive more money from family in the States. So, we may see the island move towards a more Chinese style of communism, or we may see bankruptcy – or death – force an implosion. In any event, I’m glad I was able to get there when I did and capture Cuba’s then-unchanged culture.
My hope is that, whatever happens, Cuba doesn’t become another St. Martin or Aruba – or another Las Vegas, should American interests return to a post-Fidel island. I hope the people can retain their beauty, their creativity, their lust for life, while upgrading to lifestyles like we have in the US, or like those the bookrepresents. A future generation of educated, elegant, sophisticated, talented, joyful Cubans would be a great thing.
CUBAN ART NEWS: Have the Cubans you photographed seen Habana Libre? What do they think of it? Rachel Valdes? Alex Castro? The model Januaria?
MICHAEL DWECK: Everyone I’ve spoken to loves the book. And I’ve been invited to exhibit at the Fototeca de Cuba Museum in Havana in February, which is a first for a living American contemporary artist. I know that wouldn’t be an option if the book wasn’t well-received.
CUBAN ART NEWS: What do you think the average, non-farandula-connected, working man in the street in Havana would think of it? The average woman?
MICHAEL DWECK: I’m not really sure. I can assume that not everyone would share the idea that artistic talent alone should warrant privilege, especially when you have talented doctors and talented scientists and alike who aren’t living in the same style.
But there’s also a different mentality that bonds people in places like Cuba. They don’t really argue about the 99% and the 1%... There’s two groups in their eyes – the government and the people. There’s a real notion that, “hey, these people are fellow Cubans… they’re doing well and they’re portraying a good image of the country.” So, in that sense, I can imagine the book and the images of the artists instilling pride in some people, maybe stoking some aspiration and demonstrating to the working class what may be possible in a future incarnation of the country.
CUBAN ART NEWS: This is your third book of photographs. In your work you seem to be constructing an overarching narrative of “Paradise Lost and Regained” that favors privilege, youth, beauty, and the temptations of the flesh—all vividlyapparent in Habana Libre. Do you deliberately search for photographic subjectsthat enable you to advance that theme?
MICHAEL DWECK: Yeah, there’s a certain conscious attraction to the subject. I knew, going into Cuba for example, that there would be elements of that sort to play around with. But I don’t, say, post flyers on telephone poles saying, “young, attractive, privileged models – call this number…” I just have a habit of stumbling onto my subjects, as I described with that first party or meeting Rachel.
But when you want something, don’t you start to see it everywhere – or traces of it, at least? If you’re hungry, everyone you see is eating. If you’re lonely, everyone on the street is holding hands with a lover. It’s no different with photography – when you look for love or life or elegance in a subject, you start to see it everywhere. Then you just have to focus and edit until your images tell the story you want them to tell.
CUBAN ART NEWS: As a photographer, how do you view yourself? A documentarist? A diarist? Or is there a fictional element to your work? And if so, how does it emerge in Habana Libre?
MICHAEL DWECK: I used to be in advertising and in my firm’s work, I had to make it very clear to clients and audiences what “the point” of a particular piece might be. There was no room for subjective interpretation. Everything had to be finite and exactly-defined.
Being an artistic photographer is almost the antithesis of that world – and I enjoy that. I don’t have to define my work – or, for that matter, really define myself. And that gives me room to wear many hats simultaneously. So – to use your examples – I can provide insights into a life in a particular culture, but stop short of weighing it down with the dull necessities or formalities of documentary-stylework. I can indulge in my vision of photography-as-narrative and present a book like “Habana Libre” as a fictional diary of a week in a Cuban farandula – but there’s no pressure to fact-check or to write a script.
When you get down to it, there’s fiction in reality, and reality in fiction, and reality and fiction in documentaries and diaries – and in “Habana Libre,” I used all of that. I disregarded the borders, framed my shots, drank some rum, danced to Latin jazz, smoked a big, fat cigar and decided to let the photos answer the questions however they saw fit.
So, to answer your question, I’m just a man with a camera. Everything else is in the photos.