New photobook captures changing Cuba through the passage of 25 years

Posted: 11-Nov-16 12:23

The result of 25 years of work travelling and living in the island, an amazing new photobook encompassing more than two decades of Cuban history has been recently published by its author and sole photographer, Manuello Paganelli. Of Cuban and Italian ancestry, Paganelli entitled his remarkable compilation of Cuban photographs “Cuba: A personal Journey – 1989 -2016” and the book is out now and available for purchase through its publisher, Daylight Books.

New photobook captures changing Cuba through the passage of 25 years

A unique photo compilation retelling Cuba's decades' old tales of hardship (in the face of the Soviet fall), joy, struggle, spontaneity, resilience, bravery, candidness and ultimate (undeniable) charm, has just been published by one peculiar photographer, one who has spent the last 25 years travelling back and forth to the island to capture its slowly-changing landscape over time.

Through his strategically placed lens, American photographer, Manuello Paganelli, has been able to capture what no other foreign photographer has - the barefaced, make-up free Cuba of the early 90s, when tourism hadn't yet been established and the country remained virtually closed off from the world in sheer isolation.

"In the early years of my project, Cuba really was an open and unique place – a paradise for anyone, but especially photographers. In the early 90s, tourism was not a key issue [...] and as such, there were relatively few outsiders. I remember walking across the island and thinking to myself, ‘What a pity there aren't foreign photographers anywhere'. [...] Today we might have the opposite problem."

Paganelli, who has Cuban relatives himself and who, during his frequent visits to the island, over 60 trips to be more precise, remained in close contact with them (as a matter of fact, the two children posing in the photograph chosen to grace the book's cover are Paganelli's young Cuban cousins) didn't just snap away at photogenic corners, objects or aspects of daily Cuban life. He fully dived into Cuban culture, embraced the local way of life and, on many occasions, travelled solo relying on the camaraderie and eagerness of Cubans to help, at a time when most people in the island went out of their way to help strangers, expecting no other form of compensation than the pride of knowing they had been of use to someone in need.

Through the lens (and more often than not, off it), he saw the capitalism-free Cuba that expected no other reward than a smile of gratitude. He captured the carefree spirit and giving attitude of the island and its inhabitants, long before tourist dollars started steering them in the opposite direction and foreign visitors became the country's number one source of income.

"...even during the most challenging periods, everyone was open to my camera. Nobody was going around saying, ‘Un dolar por una foto..." They were not materialistic or demanding at all [...] I would reach for my wallet to pay for their service and they would demur: "No, no, no". They felt offended because they were truly happy to help without being compensated."

Paganelli photographed the cigar-chomping Cuban ladies before they started taking over Old Havana's most touristic hotspots and posed for pictures in exchange of a dollar. He saw the slow transition of a naive, selfless Cuba into the more materialistic and opportunistic country that will do whatever it can in order to keep its family's mouths fed.

His photographs are the closer you could get into the daily Cuba of average locals. Sometimes offering an outsider's glimpse and at others, being fully immersed in the landscape as an ordinary Cuban (which he says himself he felt at times, as Cuba nurtured in him a strong sense of belonging) perfectly blending in with the crowd.

As he himself recalls:

"I never had a problem with the people. Once I grew more comfortable, I was even taking photographs of the police and, with the right access, the military."

The photographer was able to mix in without attracting much attention in the majority of occasions, even when cameras weren't mainstream then and the country not used to foreigners. Despite their being curious of his constant photographing endeavours, they never acted negatively toward it and sometimes were more than happy to pose for his pictures.

Perhaps most remarkably, Paganelli was the only foreign reporter allowed to get inside the Cuban church of San Lazaro during Pope John Paull II's historic visit to the island in 1998. He was the only outsider able to photograph this special moment in history, along with a Cuban photographer and TV reporter. Paganelli said, after this crucial visit everything in Cuba started changing at a faster pace and the country opened itself up to the world in a bigger way than it ever had. And, he stands as the only person able to capture this slow, transitional change over the years, which his unique collection of photographs portrays.

Nowadays, Paganelli keeps a close connection with Cuba, hosting a series of Cuba Photography Workshops in Havana. When many photographers come to him now with the urgency of "capturing Cuba before it changes", his unequivocal reply is that it has already and irremediably changed, and not in the last couple of years, but over the last decade. Luckily for them, despite the dramatic change, Cuba still offers unique landscapes and cityscapes in heaps and bounds. The 50s cars are still roaming, the people can still be found joyfully street-dancing and there are opportunities galore for photographers to find their Cuba niche and create their personal story.

As Paganelli advises to prospective Cuba travellers and photographers:

"[...] each interested person should go with a passionate heart and an open mind, ready to create their own personal stories. Keep visiting over and over, and after years of searching, the soul of the nation will begin to show in your images."

In short, there's no arguing that Cuba is, and will remain, for many, many years to come, that enigmatic little island full of unashamed flair and spontaneity that despite welcoming in visitors by the thousands now, still retains its tenacious, humorous and indomitable character. As Lucie Arnaz puts it, they are the kind of people:

"[...] able to move forward and make lemonade...no matter how crappy the lemons were... with an innate ability to adapt and to invent."

And these are but a few of the many qualities that people around the world cannot help but admire and which most are simply astonished by.


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