We all did the harvest

/ 1 March, 2017

To Machete (as his friends used to call Rigoberto) and Leovigildo

In memoriam

Photo reports on Cuban sugar cane harvests were frequent in Cuban documentary photography in the 20th century and, with less intensity and from a different point of view, in the 21st century. The historical circumstances changed from one time to another. From colossal boldness and millionaire goals, sugar cane cutting and the highly productive sugar mills passed to tremendous efforts and lethargic sugar-mills. But, in essence, the hands and the witnesses continued to be the same: the humble and wrinkled country man who under precarious conditions leaves his breath in every cut.

In the registry of the image also the points of view have mutated. Apart from the clichés related to the topic, an interest to look further from the classic objective, the “picturesque” character, the formal typical setting of the victorious brigade, the smiling cane cutter, the hero-worker of the new society, subsists. These archetypes were left out. In the more contemporary documentary photography the ways to look are enriched, without excessively displacing the axis of the shot: the subject, his allegorical possessions and the Sugar Mill. This basically happens with those of the essay by the author, made because of personal motivations, with a more introspective, critical, profile headed more to the concept than to the form. It is not like that in the photographic report for the press, where the formulas of representation are still in control.

Since this is not something new, nor a contribution to the new visual cultures. The anarchy of the look, gradual and moderate, comes from history. Not only from the best photography on workers and the field (Evans, Lange, Shahn in North America; Salgado in South America), but also from the inheritance received in the Island. Less known, not distributed or overshadowed in its time, deeper Cuban photography on the sugar cane harvest and its protagonists, meditated in its aesthetic, social and ontological reaches, have offered a legacy. Although it is not yet sufficiently recognized.

In one occasion, when asking a veteran photographer about this thematic and its main representatives in the 1960s and 1970s in Cuba, he categorically answered: “Yes, we all did the harvest”. And not assumed in the extended sense of the expression as it is known in good Cuban language (to make fortune, to obtain a lot of profits), but with the duty to be there, to carry out the ineludible historical determining factor to report the events, many times alternating the camera with the machete. To work at the same time as reporters and cane cutters was part of creating.

At that time, many of these press photographers worked by assignment for periodical publications (because of its edition, concept and use of the images we may highlight Cuba Internacional); some, after doing the assignment, left some time for a more personal approach. (…) In another way, some photos were discarded by the executive editor or chief editor of a magazine or newspaper, which its author rescued and kept. Many of these images were proscribed and were left in private folders; they were not exhibited or published, at least in the time they were made. These are works with a discursive solidity up-to-date with the international scene and the most demanding formal and conceptual bases of the gender. Whether because of request or inspiration, always documentary photography, they were conceived from traditional codes: in white and black, with privilege in the testimonial function, studied composition, unidirectional message and, without great circumlocutions in the handling and proposal of the contents.

Many kept some patterns in the form of treating the photographic objective, for example: the frontal portraits, with groups or only one subject looking directly to the camera, tarnished but smiling—the clothes could not be torn, first because of a directive and later because of popular belief. Neither optimism nor the Homeric gesture should get blurry, because of a direct instruction; or the photos in a same posture raising the machete, the diploma or the banner of the millionaire brigade.

I do not reprimand the photographers. These were images of circumstances and doctrines. Questionable were those who played to make photos with deep truths, where it seemed that they descried the human being above the model accommodated for the demand of an ideology, and they were not more than figurations, built stratagems to win competitions and to walk very quickly the path of legitimation and its sinecures. Or the cunning photographer, who bet for the two codes at the same time: the photography of glorious cane cutters with smell of prize (even until the 1980s) and the supposedly more visceral and human work, implicated with the best values of art. One of this days the history of Cuban photography—which is still to be written—will throw some lights on the issue, granting the fair places. (….)

Grethel Morell Otero

Historian of Cuban photography, curator and art critic. She is author of the books Otras Historias de la Fotografía Cubana (Other Histories of Cuban Photography) and Damas, Esfinges y Mambisas: La Mujer en la Fotografía cubana desde el siglo xix (Ladies, Sphinxes and Warriors: Women in Cuban Photography since the 19th century). Co-curator of the exhibitions The Lost Gaze, Cuba 1970-1984 and Small Maneuvers: Cuban Contemporary Photography.

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