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That sympathy might come with a disclaimer: While Kufeld’s portraits—of people at the beach, dancing, and at work in the fields—might seem apolitical, there is no escaping the specter of ideology in Cuba. The political atmosphere is the social atmosphere, from the towering Che Guevara portraits to the placards bearing official slogans (“Socialism or Death”) to the invisible third person—an assumed informer—who inhibits every private conversation. The ancient cars on the Malecon, the faded stridency of the billboards, and the empty air of waiting hold an obvious lesson: There is no sight without distortion.
Yet the photographer writes in his introduction that “the images here are meant to reinforce a belief that people are people, no matter where they live and no matter what type of social or political system they have chosen.” His photos of soldiers and doctors and shoeshine boys are startlingly devoid of irony, leaving it up to us to interpret Cuba as we choose: as the last worst place of all, or as an island in the stream of grand struggles.
I traveled through Cuba in 1991, during the time that Kufeld gathered these photographs, and only the humid nostalgia in his shots of Havana strikes me as familiar. Where Kufeld found people sipping coffee in a street cafe, I saw Cubans laughing at the naive suggestion that a coffee shop might have something to serve. Where Kufeld discovered diligent students at work beneath banners, I visited a school where the teachers appeared depressed and the students surly and bored. Where he saw Cubans smiling in the streets, I witnessed fistfights over seemingly nothing at all. Kufeld located a picturesque, American sense of the normal in a place that is everything but.
There is a shot here of rain in Havana, a downpour that is at once sweeping the streets clean and yet suffused with tropical sunlight. Here is Cuba as I remember it: a country where people are held in place, waiting under the spell of events they cannot control any more than the weather. The mixture of sun and shower is beautiful, but it begs a question that Kufeld does not attempt to answer: Is the storm coming or going?