Cuba before the Americans

(Photo courtesy Michael Nelson)

(Photo courtesy Michael Nelson)

When Saugerties-based photographer Michael Nelson visited Cuba for two weeks this past March, his first impression of the island was of its sheer size. “Cuba was always ‘the forbidden place’ that Americans were not allowed to visit for 50 years, so we kind of erased the island from our imaginations because we could never go there,” he says. “And then when you get there, you realize, ‘This is a big, big island!’ It’s 800 miles wide; the distance from New York City to Indianapolis. And if Havana were a city in the U.S., it would be the fourth largest city in the country. It’s the size of Chicago. You look around and you feel like, ‘Where have I been? This place has been going on.’”

And then there’s what Nelson refers to as the “pulsation of the people.” Cuba’s social culture is vibrant, he says. “The people are all very friendly; they come up to you. No one is on an iPhone or iPad, and everyone talks to each other. When you meet people, they ask you where you’re from. Most of the tourists are from Canada, Germany or South America, so when I said ‘New York,’ they were blown away. Their reaction was like, ‘Wow… so this is really happening now.’ I guess I was one of the first non-Cuban Americans they’d run into, but by next March I’m sure it’ll be the opposite; it’ll be like, ‘Oh no, another New Yorker.’ But I felt very special. And being fanatic baseball fans in Cuba, they all wanted to talk about ‘El Duque,’ [former Yankees and Mets pitcher Orlando Hernández]. That was their connection to New York.”

Nelson is primarily a commercial photographer. He shoots a lot of video and has done extensive aerial drone photography. But going down to Cuba came from a different motivation, he says. “I wanted to see what it looked like before the Americans came. To see everything through my camera, to capture it and archive it somehow. And I wanted to do it as a person on the streets, just walking, as a street photographer like Henri Cartier-Bresson, in that sense of just… what do you see on the streets? You know Cuba is going to change, so I wanted to photograph as much as I could to show what it looked like now.”


He brought a camera small enough to fit in his pocket. “I didn’t want to bring professional looking equipment, because my friend’s son went to Cuba with a film crew and had to pay $3,000 and fill out a lot of paperwork. And there was a guard with them the whole time. I didn’t want to stand out, so I brought a Lumix. It’s a new generation camera, very small, and has a Leica lens; it’s great. It’s very close to my professional 35mm cameras.” The strategy worked, as Nelson was able to go in and out of places and blend in.

On one occasion Nelson photographed the “women in white” who protest every Sunday in Miramar for the release of their husbands in prison for speaking out against the government. The weeks before and after he was in Cuba, more than 50 of the women were arrested. As Nelson was shooting, he says, someone noted that there were four cameras trained on him and he began to question the wisdom of what he was doing. But caught up in the moment, he continued, then jumped in a cab — the only one he took the entire time he was there — and got out of there fast.

Cuba has very little public transportation available. Nelson says he walked everywhere; probably more than 100 miles altogether. People with cars drive 1950s and ‘60s automobiles, the last ones brought over by GM before Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Batista in 1959. (They’ve kept them running ever since.) Nelson says they do still have some of the Russian-made Ladas — a Honda Civic-type car, he explains — that were brought in by the Russians after the revolution, but they don’t seem to have held up like the old American cars did. “And you can hardly take a photograph without one of those cars being in it,” Nelson says.

Nelson took the trip alone. “You see groups of tourists, and the leader has a flag, and it’s like, ‘here come the tourists.’ But if you go alone, you are really in there,” he says. “You get to see it. In a way, it’s easier to go alone because everyone comes up to you. People talk to you, and they take you into places.”

He stayed in Cuban homes for $25 a night, at small government-sanctioned bed-and-breakfasts called “Casas Particulares.” Some 65 percent of the people in Cuba are government workers, Nelson says, making $18 a month, so while the $25 sounds pretty cheap to us, many Cubans are leaving white collar jobs to open these B&Bs (or drive cabs). A portion of the money does go to the government; how much, Nelson doesn’t know.

And were the people receptive to being photographed? “I always ask people for permission, except when it’s a crowd; you can’t ask permission there. But when I did ask them, a lot of them wanted a tip,” he says. “So I kept my pockets filled with pesos. That’s equal to about a dollar. But when you’re only making $18 a month, $1 to have a photograph taken is not bad. The thing is, they don’t see themselves on Facebook, they don’t see themselves on the Internet, so they don’t know what the end product of what you’re doing is going to be.”

The food was “nothing to write home about,” Nelson says, “but then again, maybe I just didn’t find the right places.” Breakfast was always good, he adds, and so were the rice-and-beans. But the Cubano sandwich he had at the Cuban National Hotel was “very bland,” unlike the one made right here in Saugerties at Deli-Cioso, whose proprietor is Puerto Rican and has a Cuban wife. “His Cubano sandwich is incredible!” raves Nelson.

Deli-Cioso will be hanging a selection of Nelson’s photographs from Cuba on the walls of the cafe, as will the Bluestone Coffee Roasting Company, where Nelson has been exhibiting his work for the past year. He likes the idea of putting his work in cafes, he says, in keeping with the spirit of late 19th century Parisian cafes that used to show art that way. There was recently a one-day pop-up show of the Cuban photographs at the Kiersted House, and Nelson is planning future exhibitions elsewhere. The photographs can be seen in this month’s Hudson Valley Magazine, as well.

Nelson’s visit was the result of his longstanding fascination with Cuba. He was born in Key West, and says he remembers, as a child, seeing the sign at the pier pointing toward Havana, reading, ‘Cuba: 90 miles.’ “You don’t really see anything at that point,” he says. “You just imagine where it is.” His father was a navigator in the Navy and stationed on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And Nelson heard a lot of intriguing stories about Cuba over the years from his longtime friend, who is Cuban, whose family left the island in 1959 when Fidel Castro seized power.

Nelson had tried to visit Cuba last year, but even though some of the restrictions against travel had been lifted by then, his application was turned down. There are now 12 categories of travel to Cuba permitted, including humanitarian activities and “journalistic activity,” but as of this writing, simple tourism travel is still prohibited. “You can’t go just to lie on the beach, in other words,” he says. His March visit has whet his appetite for more: he plans to return to the island soon; perhaps in January when there are supposed to be direct flights available from JFK airport. (On this trip he had to fly through the Cayman Islands first.)

“The experience in Cuba kind of reminded me of the experience of being in New York City on the Lower East Side in the ‘70s,” Nelson says. “Everything was kind of falling apart in New York then, but people talked to each other — not always in a nice way, of course! — and it was authentic. New York City now is so corporate… it’s like a mall. And that’s the fear with Cuba, that American corporations will go in there and do the same thing. Right now the environment in Cuba is clean… there’s no industry, so there’s no pollution. Their coral reefs are pristine and there are no gas or oil spills; they have one of the best bird-watching areas there. And we all talk about sustainability here, but look at Cuba: they don’t throw anything away! They have to fix it.”

Nelson remembers being in New York City in 1973 and photographing the subways. “I didn’t think much about it then — it was just what it was — but when I look at the photographs now, there are people with afros, there are bag ladies… I say, ‘that’s history!’ You know, we think of ourselves as being journalists and photojournalists here and now, but actually, 30 years from now, we’ll have been historians.”