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Book Review: Campesino Cuba by Richard Sharum

After Morning Pledge. Village of Santo Domingo, Cuba. March, 2019.

These black and white photographs radiate something extremely powerful. The scenes they depict appear archaic. How come? It’s what black and white photographs tend to do, I suppose, for they weren’t taken in ancient times but in today’s world. It’s as though some mystical, time-less aura emanates from these images.

These photographs document scenes from rural Cuban life that one rarely gets to see. One does not need words to describe that these people live a hard life, one can see and feel it. For this is what photographs can do – they can make you feel. This is their magic.

Although I’m not unfamiliar with Cuba (I got married in Havana), these pictures introduce me to an island I do not know. They also make once again clear to me that there are not only as many Cubas as there are Cubans but that there are also the many different Cubas of the visitors. Differently put: These photographs show a personal, subjective view – and this is their strength for the more personal, honest, subjective, the greater the chance that others will sympathise, even identify, with what is revealed.

One sees people at work in the field, fishing, sleeping, preparing food, praying, children playing, and and and – pictures of daily life in rural Cuba. Nobody seems to pose for the camera, no fake smiles, quite some appear to live in their own private universe (we all do, of course, but these photographs make it visible to me).

There are also texts (in English and in Spanish) in this thoughfully edited tome. It’s not an easy task to decide which photo to place next to another, and in what size – full page, half page, spread over two pages. The first, “Sowing The Days,” is by Domingo Cuza Pedrera and tells about his childhood, a touching account that created as many pictures in my head as did the photographs. “The roof, unlike the typical huts where guano is used, was made of zinc, and when it rained it put together a percussion concert that, together with the freshness, brought by the waters and the smell of wet earth, was an irresistible invitation to get into bed.”

Yara River. Sierra Maestra Mountains, Cuba. July 2019.

Old Generator Building. Sierra Maestra Mountains, Cuba. March 2019

In “Cuban Campesinos: Tilling The Homeland,” Aldo Daniel Naranjo Tamayo, gives a brief, highly informative outline of Cuban history. And, there are also the recollections of Luca Castillo (83), Manuel Castillo (63), Juan González Castillo (70), Miguel Verdecia (77), and Holmis Abad Verdecia (39).

I felt most taken by what Holmis Abad Verdecia (39) had to say for she refers to the present that seems to stand in contradiction to what the pictures show (life in rural Cuba is as hard as it has always been) but is not – it simply points out that a new reality is creeping in. “Now that I have children of my own, I am really worried about technology, how technology is taking over the country and children are learning to use it a lot. The young people are becoming hesitant to live in the ways of the countryside. They are not behaving like children anymore – they are behaving like adults. They try to imitate the people they see on the internet, and I am very worried and sad at the same time to see that (…) Sometimes my son will say, ‘I want that,’ and that is fine, but that is just not our reality. There are times you have to put your foot down and remind them how to be a proper person in society.”

With these words in mind I look at these photos again with different eyes.

Campesino Cuba
by Richard Sharum
GOST Books, London 2021

About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland. www.hansdurrer.com/, 12-step-addiction-treatment.blogspot.ch/. Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

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