ARTINFO: How did this show come about? Did you have an initial interest in Cuban society as a subject, or did you stumble into it?
MICHAEL DWECK: I suppose I stumbled onto the subject matter: the "farandula," the parties, etcetera, but, you can't really stumble into Cuban society — not as an American. But I knew I wanted to go to Cuba for a while — there's a draw to the island I can't really describe, some kind of dangerous and sensual beauty. And there's also the factor I've mentioned before: "There's something going on here that people have no idea about."
When my friends asked about the first trip — the reasons for it — I told them "I'm going fishing," as a joke, but the joke became the truth. I spend a lot of time out in Montauk and I love to fish, but even the best fishermen in the world will tell you that there's a lot of guesswork to the sport. And that became the apparent tie — the realization that, in some cases, all you can do is do the prep work. In the case of photographing in Cuba, that meant having the Visas, the lenses, and the right mindset: "I'll talk to whoever I need to get to the bottom of something." It sounds easy when I talk about it now, but it took a lot of humility in a sense to go to this tiny, insular country as a true "outsider" and try to sneak up on beauty, truth....
I guess it snuck up on me, as much as I hunted it down. It took the bait, if you will, but not in a sinister way. And the end result was the body of work I shoot for — something in which each photograph stands on its own but also contributes to a larger spirit that informs the body's overarching narrative. Here the final narrative depicted a privileged world unknown in the West and still unacknowledged within Cuba.
ARTINFO: Since the show has traveled internationally, how does showing it in Cuba affect the meaning of the photographs?
MICHAEL DWECK: That's a good question. I'm not sure I have a good answer though. I always find it interesting to see how people react to my exhibitions, but this was definitely the show I worried about the most, given the subject matter and the audiences.
On one hand, you have domestic reactions from people who have been told what I've been told — the Cold War rhetoric about Cuba being an evil, unhappy island; a police state. How would these people react to images of Cuba in celebration? And what about the Cubans themselves? How would they feel about the glitz that surrounds the group depicted? It was never my intention to showcase the "rules" or "exceptions" of Cuba — but would this come through?
The answers have been reassuring. American audiences, for the most part, have received the project for what it is: a document (but not documentary) reflecting a privileged class of people in a classless society. They seem to have been able to understand the political nuances, without letting that corrupt the humanity and depth of the portraits.
As for the Cuban reaction — that's been phenomenal. The opening attracted a record 2,300 people to the Fototeca de Cuba Museum, and the reception's atmosphere mirrored the reception of the work. Cubans welcomed it as what it was: an honest look into a world both foreign and local that offers escape, potential and maybe a wink of irony. And that's all it was supposed to be.
ARTINFO: Are there any political tensions surrounding the making and showing of this body of work, either from the Cuban or American side?
MICHAEL DWECK: The short answer is "no." The long answer is "not really." No, Cuba was great about everything — the government, I mean. Even before I knew the full scope of the project, the officials I worked with were very forthcoming and welcoming. They set me up with all the papers I needed, the visas, etc.
The artists I photographed were a little more reticent at first — as well they should have been. Americans with cameras haven't always gone to the island with objectivity — much less art — in mind. But once I hung around for a while and made the details of the project known, they were very kind and receptive.
I think they understood that the point of my art ran parallel with theirs — in that it had the potential of exposing certain truths about Cuba to the rest of the world. I've said before that Cuba's artists serve as ambassadors for a country that needs ambassadors more than anything. And that tugs on the book's political pant leg... the one that doesn't depict people moving about cocktail parties, but moving "around" political ones.
That ties to the only tensions that I encountered in the US — the large ex-pat community, especially that in Miami. There are misguided individuals among them who have accused the book of being "pro-Castro," to which I counter, "It's not pro-Castro, it's pro-Cuba." I try to explain to them that you can have pride in a country — or at least, concern for it — without having pride in its leadership. (If you hung a flag after 9/11, you may know the feeling.)
ARTINFO: The participation of figures like Alex Castro and Camilo Guevara makes your work inextricably linked to Cuban and American politics, yet the photographs present a group of people that seem to come and go, and live life without restraint from the government. What impact does the "farandula" have on Cuba's political present and future?
MICHAEL DWECK: I'm not sure you can separate the impact the "farandula" has on government from the impact of the government on the "farandula," you know?
For starters, this scene exists — the art scene and the celebration within it — because Castro allows it. He's a self-proclaimed patron of the arts as much as he's a fan of baseball or a proponent of medicine. For him, having a vibrant art scene is essential to have a vibrant population — and that's why these artists receive the considerations they do. That's why they're allowed to travel freely and the like. As I said, they're the ambassadors.
That said, this isn't 1959 anymore. The increasing ease of communication and travel has led to a certain global community and that's going to be felt everywhere — even in countries where communication and travel is difficult. That's where these artists come in. They show the rest of the world Cuba and they show Cuba the rest of the world. It moves slowly, but it moves surely, and while they may not be frontline activists, they're helping to inform Cuba's evolving 21st century policy.
In the last year, we've seen increasing freedoms granted in regard to travel, home sales, business creation, money transfers... Sure, part of it is that the country's functionally broke and not receiving the foreign aid it once had. But I believe the soul of the artist contributes, as it does anywhere.
ARTINFO:You make life in Havana look absolutely decadent — sexy and full of the leisure afforded only by privilege, money, and youth. However, if "Habana Libre" depicts "the other" Cuba, it must have been hard to avoid the rest of the populace that doesn't feature in the book. What else did you experience in Cuba, which affected your work and made an impact on you?
MICHAEL DWECK: I don't think I made a conscious effort to "avoid the rest of the populace that doesn't feature in the book." I made artistic decisions about the book's subject and held my focus.
I think it's important to remember that "Habana Libre" doesn't depict Cuba, nor Havana, but a group of people in the city, in the country — my ideal vision. It's no different than the photographs that come out of Fashion Week in New York. They depict a very small subset of a very large and complex society. When publishing photographs of a model on a catwalk, the photographer doesn't have a responsibility to juxtapose them with images of impoverished children in the South Bronx or remind the audience that to get to the shoot, he or she had to share a subway car with a homeless man who soiled his pants. It's the same city, but a different focus.
Cuba is a diverse place with no shortage of suffering and poverty. I'm not pretending that it's not, but I'm also not presenting that as my thesis. When the Cultural Ministers open the doors for a National Geographic crew, they can field those questions. I went to Cuba with long and short lenses, but I aimed them very carefully.
ARTINFO: Now that you've left Havana, what projects do you have coming up?
MICHAEL DWECK: I'm working on a tantalizing project called "Checks and Balances" featuring candid shots of "pro-family" US Congressmen engaged in extramarital affairs. No. That's a joke (though it's not a bad idea... plenty of material for fodder).
If you know me, you know my next move is dependent on the prior move — like I described before about my arrival in Cuba. You can see the process in all my work. I pick settings, set-up the cameras, then I zoom-in on elements of note. With Montauk, it was Island — Beach — Youth. With Mermaids, it was Water — Impressionism — Female Form. All I can do is give you a hint of the next keywords floating around in my head: Film. Paris. Growth. Now you know as much as I do.