Cuba Letter To Tim
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Tuesday, April 25, 2017
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Tim,   At the end of my life you may be the only person to ever ask me what I would consider to be my favorite photograph. After forty odd years of commercial photography and many years of living, there’s an even chance no one will ever ask me again.  The question actually stopped me in my tracks.  I had no idea what to say at the moment, so I said nothing.  To be honest, I know a lot of serious photographers and I’ve never even posed that question to any of them. Hell, I’d never even asked myself. Since you’re the only person to ask, you deserve a proper answer. But to get to my favorite image, there’s gotta be a proper story.  There’s always some context and history as a frame to these things.  Sometimes a favorite image might not be so superficially beautiful, but in context it has a different life entirely.  Sometimes it’s rather a miracle it even exists.

I think most creative types would answer your question with a non-committal answer.  I mean is this one moment the best?  Come on, you’re kidding right? For those who continue to explore there’s no telling what happens next, so the favorite moment or photograph might yet to be experienced. No one ever asked me and over the years I never thought about it - not even for a second.  And then you asked me, and now I’ve thought about it on and off for more than six months.

There are two principle thoughts that drive me photographically - a moment and an old friend.  Let me explain.  If you toss a ball in the air, it hesitates.  Just for a moment.  Right at the top of the toss it stops. In that moment, anything can happen.  Change is imminent. It’s in that split second when everything you know to be true is about to be different.  That’s the moment I look toward.  When does everything change and nothing’s the same?  That’s the moment that drives me, both as a commercial photographer and an artist.

In 1955, an iconic photographer named Edward Steichen curated a Museum Of Modern Art photography show called The Family Of Man.  Photos of every day people from all over the world. They made a book of the same name.  While on a tour promoting the book, a journalist asked Steichen what makes a great photograph.  Paraphrased, he said when you see a great photograph, in that instant you recognize an old friend. That’s the other issue I look for. The search for an old friend I’ve never met.  What follows are a couple of old friends. 

You asked about my favorite image.  Currently there are two.  They both happened in generally the same place and within two weeks of each other.  They relate to one another only in the message they appear to convey.  They both came as complete surprises as many favorite moments come to all of us.  There we are living our lives as we are inclined to do and suddenly we’re given a gift of clarity and joy.  It just falls in our lap.  That’s the nature of these images.

Lets go to Cuba in June 2012.

Cuba was one of my more amazing experiences ever.  The country is currently a beautifully dying white swan, floating in the Caribbean with its collapsed wings elegantly folded over its body as though it were drifting and simply asleep.  But it is not.  Castro's grand idealistic experiment has evolved and collapsed under the weight of its own bureaucratically warped version of Socialism, and the arrogance and ignorance of an American embargo well past its prime.  Certainly there are highlights of progress and bits and pieces of evolution, but the real money behind the push to the future appears to not be Cuban.  It’s from outside the country.  Cuba doesn’t belong to Cubans.  To a degree it belongs to the outside investors who are waiting not so patiently for it to fully open.  The cities are literally crumbling and the people have all but lost the necessities of life as well as most of their entrepreneurial spirit, but amongst all the chaos of the politics and bureaucratic fog banks reside moments of incredible beauty, truth and possibility.  The life spirit continues to live in the most simple of moments.

I had been fly fishing for bonefish at a small lodge on the rural remote northeastern shore of Cuba for about a week.  Richard French from Slipstream Angling in Toronto had arranged my trip and after the week of incredible fishing, he suggested I go out into the country and stay at a large working farm/horse farm called Rancho la Guabina about three hours southwest of Havana.  The farm is known around the world as a source of champion Appaloosa horses.

The farm nestled expansively in tropical forested hills of the Vinales Valley. The majority of my first day was a languid deep breath of cigars, rum, and a gentle Caribbean breeze through the forest around the farm.   Early the next morning, an insistent knock at my door pulled me out of bed. In broken English, Jorge urgently said I needed to go to the horse barn immediately and bring my camera.  A steaming yellow orange sun yawned and stretched at the low slung forested horizon, and backlit the dirt road to the horse barn about a quarter mile away.  Neither of us spoke.  Everything was a blissful green shade of still and quiet.  Horses grazing in the pasture to my right.  The occasional mosquito in my ear.  Sweating as we walked up the hill.  Instinctively I turned on the camera and immediately checked the settings.  We walked past the sign that in Spanish said “No Admittance.  No Photographs.  Scientists At Work. Viva La Revolucion!”  We went into the barn, past maybe four or five Cuban cowboy caricatures, who slouched around a large empty stall kicking hay, chewing tobacco and doing stuff all cowboys seem to do when they just stand there. Jorge led me up to the same empty stall and told me to stay put off to one side and then he left.  I was standing at the corner of this empty stall in a barn with five cowboys watching me watching nothing in particular.  Their eyes were barely visible under the expansive brims of those Stetson imitations.  At this point I really had no idea what was happening or why I was supposed to be there at that moment.

Suddenly a guy dressed in a blue work jump suit led an Appaloosa mare into the stall. He glanced at me for a moment and smiled.  He then walked cautiously to the head of the mare and kissed her on the nose.  He whispered something to her.  He stepped to the side, took out a syringe, stroked the mare on the neck and pushed the syringe into her neck.  He wiped the wound with a swab of some sort and then he stood next to me. We stood there for maybe five minutes.  Silent. The mare seemed oddly stressed, but just as oddly she seemed at ease.  As though she understood what was happening, but had to move a bit in spite of it all.  I’d never seen anything like this.  Farm kids know this stuff by heart, but I’m a city kid.  I was brand new.  Suddenly, the mare dropped to her knees and then gently rolled to lie on her side.

In the next few minutes I watched this mare give birth to a beautiful female foal.  Immediately it was such a shock I couldn’t photograph anything, but then I simply started to take images without thinking.  At first the foal lay on the straw unable to raise its head. The mare looked over to her and they saw each other for the first time.  The foal struggled to raise her head in recognition and they gently touched muzzles.  The mare stood and then nuzzled the foal.  Pushing gently against her head and body.  An insistent gentle touch. 

No one in or around the stall said a thing. The foal tried to stand but immediately fell forward.  Again, the mare pushed gently with her nose.  The foal tried again and fell over.  She couldn’t stand.  She fell again, and again and again. The mare stood in a graceful arc next to her and touched her nose one last time, and then she quietly lay down next to her child.  They just sat there calmly together for what seemed like two or three minutes.  It was just riveting to watch this play out.  In both their eyes was the calm certainty of events played out since the beginning of life.

The foal turned back to look her mother straight in the eye and then suddenly bent and jerked forward, raising her rear end and balancing on the knee joints of her front legs.  Gasping for breath she paused for a moment, and then her whole body shook with the effort as she rose on four trembling legs.  For the first moment in her life she stood.  The mare waited till the foal stood, and then she rose to stand next to her child, lifted her elegant head, shook it violently side to side and whinnied into the morning.  The whole damn barn heard the mare.  In the background, the cowboys laughed quietly and then respectfully whispered back and forth and shuffled more straw.  I swear there was a smile on the mare’s face.  In that instant where everything changed and nothing was the same, I took one last photograph of them together.  A portrait of a proud mother and a child in that instant of standing for the first time.  The moment a new life stood up to greet the day.  It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

 

I’m an only child myself.  I don’t have a perspective on extensive closely-knit families and the cycle of birth and death the way some people do.  I have to admit I have my moments of jealousy when I see those folks who do have that experience.  But there are many different kinds of perspectives on life, and this experience in Cuba left me exhilarated in the knowing that regardless of what we might do to mess it up, life begins again. This photograph makes me think once again that anything is possible.  This portrait suggests to me that it’s true.

This is one of those two images.  My favorites.

WH

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