Giovan Captures Cuba As It Slips Into A New Age

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Dancing, Isabela de Sagua, Cuba - 1993.
Children’s Clothing Store, Remedios, Cuba-1993. Tria Giovan photography.

By Michelle Trauring

Like clockwork, the flight from Miami would never leave before noon. Tria Giovan knew the routine well.

But starting at 4 a.m., she would wait — for hours upon hours — enduring this only-comical-in-hindsight form of torture until she could board, sit for another hour and 45 minutes, and deplane onto an island that, also like clockwork, enraptured her senses every time.

She lost herself in the language, the food, the music, the dance, the history, the culture — from the buzzing streets and sweaty clubs to warm homes, local businesses and ephemera of the revolution — all with camera in hand, documenting what very few others could see.

It was 1990, and this was Cuba.

“It felt like another world, but it was so close, which was always, of course, the dichotomy of Cuba,” the Sag Harbor-based photographer said.

Though the Berlin Wall had recently come down, and the Soviet Union was dissolving, the economic collapse that the country would face hadn’t happened yet, Giovan recalled. It was the calm before the impending storm, and she just didn’t know it.

None of them did.

Over the next six years, Giovan would visit for 12 week-long trips, compiling and archive of about 25,000 photos as she watched Cuba not-so-slowly slip into a very dark age — a number of which are currently on view in the exhibit “Cuba Is” at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, and bound in her new book, “The Cuba Archive,” which she will sign on Sunday at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill.

“From the very beginning, from that first trip, that it was just inevitable that Cuba was gonna change. It was inevitable that tourism was going to start coming in, and you could sense it was on the precipice,” she said. “And I just felt like I had to go back as soon as possible. It was completely compelling in that way, and I was really lucky to feel that compelled.”

Dancing, Isabela de Sagua, Cuba – 1993.

Giovan had felt an immediate kinship and allure within the country, having grown up in the US Virgin Islands herself, and found “something familiar and yet something much more profound” there, she said.

“I think it’s hard not to romanticize Cuba. It’s a very sexy place and certainly facilitates producing stereotypical images. I think anyone, or myself, might be drawn to take those pictures,” she said. “I think it’s when you come back and you edit and starting thinking about everything you’ve learned behind it, that’s when you make the choices to step beyond those stereotypes.

Malecon Gibara, 1993

“Cuba’s a romantic place, but romance isn’t always happy,” she continued. “Romance implies, sometimes, a bit of heartbreak.”

It wouldn’t take long before the country descended into the downward spiral that would become known as the “Special Period,” marked by widespread hunger, fuel shortages and the shutdown of societal infrastructure as the USSR, which had propped up much of Cuba’s economy, faced its own downfall.

Still, in the beginning, spirits were high and, wherever Giovan went, she was a commodity.

“There were very little tourists there at the time. It was very laid back,” she said, noting that she first traveled to Cuba as a “researcher” on a sponsored trip. “The thing that struck me initially was the accessibility of the place, as well as the people. My first day, I was just wandering around Havana and I could walk up to any person’s door — everything was wide open and I’d just look in — and they’d be like, ‘Entrée, entrée! Bienvenido!’ or ‘Come on in! What are you doing? Who are you?’ People were super welcoming and just let you walk into their house and take pictures.”

In less than 24 hours, she shot a quarter of the film she had brought for two weeks. “And then I completely freaked out,” she said. “Amazingly enough, I was able to find some 120 film there.”

Her camera became a time capsule and a historic record, capturing Cubans exactly as they were at that time, Giovan said — and she means that quite literally.

Memorial – Gonzalez, Ciego de Avila, 1992.

“I’d see a person standing with a certain expression on their face and I’d stop and say, in Spanish, ‘Can I take your picture?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh sure, why not,’ but they wouldn’t change their expression at all,” she recalled. “They didn’t put on the camera face, which I think people that are so used to having their picture taken do automatically, and that didn’t really exist in Cuba.

“People would look right back at me with the exact same expression, they wouldn’t change anything,” she added. “So the element that I saw, that I found intriguing — their posture or their expression — they just held it for me. You couldn’t ask for a better situation.”

Over the years that passed, she built herself a community there, complete with a surrogate grandmother she affectionately called “Abuela.” With the exception of one small corner, she documented the entire 875-mile-long island, making several cross-country trips that had her often playing taxi to families waiting on the side of the road for any car to drive by.

“I’d see a guy and his wife and some little 3-year-old kid, and stop and say, ‘Where are you going? Jump in the car. How long have you been waiting?’ and they’d be like, ‘Six hours,’” Giovan said. “That happened all the time.”

The last trip the photographer would make during that time was 2000. She wouldn’t return for 17 years.

In March, the Annenberg sent Giovan on assignment to Cuba, where she reconnected with old friends and a city she had, in some ways, left behind.

“It was really exciting. I was a little nervous. I had some trepidation. I was afraid that I would find it completely changed, that I would be really depressed about the whole thing,” she said. “But there was something really comforting about going back, and I had forgotten how much I loved it there and how at ease I felt and how well I knew the city. Part of it was great. It definitely has a more enlivened spirit than when I was last there, and a lot more tourists.

“It’s important to go there knowing about the country, about its history — to go informed,” she added. “You wonder what their future holds, you know? I just wish them all the best going forward.”

Tria Giovan will sign copies of her book, “The Cuba Archive,” on Sunday, November 12, at 12:30 p.m. at the Parrish Art Museum, located at 279 Montauk Highway in Water Mill, as part of its “Five and Forward” weekend. For more information, please call (631) 283-2118 or visit parrishart.org.

Photographs from “The Cuba Archive” are currently on view in “Cuba Is” at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, California, where Giovan will give a talk on Thursday, November 16. The exhibition will remain on view through March 4. For more information, please call (213) 403-3000 or visit annenbergphotospace.org.

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