A Photo Essay by John Partipilo

  • If you’ve never been to Cuba, the photographs on these pages will nearly take you there. The colors of the cars and buildings penetrate your brain, and you can almost smell the rich, warm sweetness of the Vinales Valley tobacco. These photographs are transportive and gorgeous, and engage the senses.

         But take a moment and look again. With another glance you might feel the two-dimensional boundaries dissolving, pulling you into the photographs themselves. Somehow, you are riding in the backseat of a 1953 Thunderbird. By some curious switch, you are now standing beside a bleary-eyed woman in the doorway of her home, sensing her everyday hopes and hardships. Viewing these photographs you might wonder, “How am I actually in these photographs? What magic is this?”
         While the magic itself cannot be named, the magician can. He is John Partipilo, two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, an 18-year resident of East Nashville, and a contributing photographer for The East Nashvillian. If you fancy yourself a photographer as I do, you might find his work as much intimidating as it is inspiring. As most photographers know from repeated failures, capturing “the decisive moment” with regularity is incredibly difficult. But, as I learned firsthand in Cuba, John makes it look easy.
         For three weeks this past spring, I bore witness to John’s creative process. Together we drove nearly the entire length of Cuba — from Havana to Guantanamo — documenting a wide assortment of people and situations: backstage at a drag show; a wedding party; an open-casket funeral; families in their homes. We shot cockfights and ballet rehearsals, cliff divers, urban farmers, street kids, club musicians, and much, much more. Cuba is what photographers might call a “target-rich environment,” hyperstimulating and rife with opportunities. But for me, a newbie shooter with much to learn, the greater value and privilege, frankly, was the opportunity to absorb wisdom directly from a true professional possessing what seems to be several lifetimes of finely tuned talent. Time and again during our Cuban journey, I observed John doing what great artists/ photographers do: the bending of light into stories by turning mundane moments into intimate and mesmerizing photographs that reveal inner worlds and larger truths.


    Havana, the capitol of Cuba, has much historic charm, but has lost much of its lustre because Fidel Castro redirected the country’s primary resources toward the improvement of conditions in rural Cuba after the Revolution. Many of the buildings are falling apart. The Cuban Capitol can be seen under reconstruction.


    Juan Perez lights up a cigarette in his apartment in Havana. Like many other Cubans, he lives in a rundown building that needs much work. He struggles to make money everyday. Even though he gets benefits from the government, it isn’t enough to live on. Everyone in Havana seems to be hustling to make more. I am not convinced that for common people much has changed since the Batista government.


    Raul is a vendor at the Mercado Agropecuario — or farmers market — in the city of Camaguay. Onions and garlic are some of the most expensive items to buy at the market at around $3 a pound. It’s very hard for many families in Cuba to afford them, so you see a lot of garlic and onions hanging about.


    Mercedes Lugones is a Santeria practioner in Trinidad. Santeria, also known as Regla de Ocha or La Regla de Ifa, is a religion of Carribbean origin that developed in the Spanish empire among West African decendents. Santeria is also a Spanish word that means the Worship of Saints. Santeria is influenced by and syncretized with Roman Catholicism.


    Dayana Chevavez Toledo was my interpreter. She speaks four languages, and like many Cubans, idolizes Che Guevara, one of the heroes of the Revolution. She took us to the Che Guevara Mausoleum, which is the most revered place in Cuba. It contains the remains of Che Guevara, who was killed in1967 in Bolivia. No one is allowed to speak in the mausoleum. “If anyone asks you where you are from, say Canada, not the United States,” Dayana warned.


    Mamino Gonzalez Gomez, 85, has been rolling cigars at the famous Alejandro Robaina Tobacco Plantation since he was 20. I was taken by how his hands looked very similar to the tobacco he was rolling.
    The fashion in the windows is not for Cubans — they couldn’t possible afford clothing like this. It is for tourists to buy. Most Cubans don’t make enough money to afford clothes like this.
    On the way to Vinales, where the best tobacco is grown, it occurred to me that I was in some kind of time warp from the ’50s. Most of the cars one might see are old American cars from the ’50s and ’60s. The Cubans are very resourceful and have fashioned their own parts to fix the cars because American parts are not available.