Walking to Guantanamo looks at Cuba from the road
January 21, 2009
By Curt Holman
Richard Fleming, a world traveler thanks to his career as a documentary sound recordist, had his “Eureka!” moment while walking in the hills of Haiti.
Given the weekend off from his latest film, he went backpacking on Haiti’s remote mountain trails and found them to be anything but isolated. “I was walking along what amounted to a pedestrian superhighway. There were hundreds of merchants and farmers on this footpath, carrying stuff to market,” he says. “This is a great way to get to know a culture,” he thought.
Fleming hit on the notion to trek the length of Cuba on foot as a way to shake off a midlife rut and better learn a country that had fascinated him for years. He envisioned that Cuba would offer an even more illuminating walking experience than Haiti, since the collapse of the Soviet bloc had created a transportation crisis on the island, with severe shortages in fuel, vehicles and replacement parts. Fleming’s four-month Cuban adventure in 2000 led to his new travel book, Walking to Guantanamo, published in November by Commons, and now an exhibit, Walking to Guantanamo: The Photographs, on display at Whitespace Gallery through Feb. 28.
Whether through his descriptive writing laced with self-deprecating humor or through snapshots rich with illuminating details, Fleming shares his experience of Cuba as a nation of lush beauty seemingly forgotten by history. Typewriter repair shops enjoy brisk business, revolutionary slogans cover pitted walls and Afro-Caribbean religions such as Santeria have gradually come out of the closet. Although the book concludes at Guantanamo Bay, Fleming focuses more on its history as a thorn in the side of U.S.-Cuban relations than the current prisoner abuse scandals at “Gitmo.”
In a phone conversation from his home in Brooklyn, Fleming acknowledges that the book’s title rests on what he calls “a white lie.” “One of the running jokes of the book is that my idea turned out to be a complete misperception. I encountered people willing to wait a couple of hours to take a bus just a couple of miles, rather than walk that far in the Caribbean heat. People thought I was crazy to be walking, so I gave up the idea pretty quickly.”
Fleming adds that he wasn’t in physical shape to walk across a country and developed knee pain after about a week. He says Walking to Guantanamo’s other running joke is that he kept “downgrading” his mode of travel and getting further away from his pedestrian ideal. He hopped on a horse and buggy on his third day; arrived in Havana on a public bus; bought a one-speed Chinese bicycle in Trinidad that he rode for most of the rest of the trip (when he wasn’t changing flat tires); and hired a car for the final miles to Guantanamo. He encountered the strangest conveyance while walking along some railroad tracks.
“I heard this noise coming up behind me like a leaf blower. Then these guys came up on a gasoline-powered train repair vehicle. It was like a really short train car with no roof, no bigger than an automobile. It looked like something out of Edward Gorey. I couldn’t even hear them talking, but they were clearly offering me a ride. It didn’t look safe – when they stopped, they skidded about 100 meters. I thought, ‘This looks very dangerous – and there’s absolutely no way I’m not going to take a ride.’”
Despite many such colorful scenes, Fleming initially intended his photographs merely to supplement a potential book about his experiences. He studied photography in college but never considered himself a professional photographer. He took two cameras to Cuba and thought, “I’m going to be writing a travel book, and I love travel books that have photos of the characters. Plus, if I encounter a scene I want to describe in the book, [the photo] will give me some access to [a] level of detail that might not make it to my notebook or memory.”
Whitespace director Susan Bridges enthuses over his work, saying, “Richard has a fresh approach to photographing Cuba that can be attributed to his unusual and arduous journey. His are not clichéd images of beautiful, decaying, empty buildings but very personal, gritty documents of the Cuban people, their land and photographed with a loving eye.”
Fleming feels that his photos’ literary origins distinguish the showing from the usual photographic exhibits. “I guess it’s sort of uncool to have long captions. I go to photo galleries, and it’s ‘Here’s the photo: It’s big, it’s beautiful, it’s photography having its own moment in the sunshine.’ This is completely different from that. It’s kind of a documentary project. I did my best to represent the aspects of my experience. I almost thought Waiting might be a good title for the show, Waiting for the Bus, Waiting for Something to Change. There are images where you feel this sense of inertia or even resignation, but I tried to balance those with ones that seem more optimistic.”
After spending months in Cuba, Fleming feels that change won’t come quickly to the island nation, no matter how the country’s Communist leadership changes. “For the first few years after I came back, people would ask what I thought would happen ‘after Fidel is gone.’” Now Fidel basically is gone, but there seems to be some foresight about how to transition leadership in the Cuban regime. With the Obama administration, I think we have the potential to see real change from the U.S. side. It may be a slow capitalist revolution. We seem to be living perfectly well with China, which hasn’t really changed their leadership since we described them as a terrible enemy. The United States is willing to tolerate a socialist government.”
Fleming found the Cubans to be open-minded and willing to judge him as an individual, despite decades of anti-U.S. propaganda. “People were curious and excited that I came to their little corner of the world, especially because I went to some pretty remote areas. I met very few people who reacted very negatively to me as an American, apart from one guy, who was suspicious of me. I still did business with him, though.” Perhaps such encounters between Cuban and American individuals mark the first steps in a journey to bridge the two nations.
People often say that pictures are more powerful than words but, at least to us, the combination of the two is often overwhelming, pulling the viewer far into the world of which the artist wants you to enter.
For photography, it is even more so, as the photographer is both an artist and a channel for others’ stories to be told. The result is often an unparralled form of storytelling.
And with that concept, photographer Richard Fleming brings to you Cuba from his perspective, one that is both expansive and intimate. His show opens at Atlanta’s Whitespace Gallery Saturday, 16 January, and continues through 28 February. We interviewed Fleming about the upcoming show “Walking to Guantanamo”.
Holly Lang/Pine Magazine: Can you tell me about your book? What prompted this project?
Richard Fleming: I’ve always been a chronic traveler, and at a certain point I decided I would try and make something out of one of my trips, rather than just continuing to collect a series of personal experiences.
One of the reasons I chose Cuba was that I felt that the literature on Cuba was entirely polarized; there were two dominant perspectives, one holding that Castro is a kind of a devil, a communist anti-Christ who must be vanquished before we engage with Cuba in any way, and the opposite extreme, which I could call the “defender of the little guy” theory, which held that the revolution was a wonderful thing and that Cuba would blossom into a socialist paradise if it weren’t for the big, evil United States looming over it and preventing progress on the island. There didn’t seem to be much in between. I thought neither of these perspectives was very useful in imagining Cuba’s contemporary reality, so I decided that going and seeing for myself might make a good book. I even had the title, “Walking to Guantánamo,” before I set out. I’ve tried to make it is an apolitical as possible, although just the raw fact of an American wandering around the Cuban countryside makes that a somewhat absurd proposition.
PM: Culturally, what were some of the more striking differences between Cuba and the US/Western world?
RF: This is a huge question that could be answered on many different levels, but I could start with the observation that much of what I would once have identified as the culture of the United States, its regional diversity, has been destroyed, both by television, and by the instrument of the franchise. This is true even to an extent of the landscape.
The same strip malls, anchor stores and fast-food signage are on Forty-Second Street as you find in the desert in Arizona. The specific personalities of so many places seem to me to have been diminished, at least in comparison to what they were formerly. New Orleans, really, is one of the only American cities I can think of that has a bold and independent personality, and I haven’t been there since Katrina, so I can’t say whether that has survived.
People cling to ideas of what the south is, or what the “wild west” is, but everyone is watching the same blend of entertainment and advertising on television, and people move around so much that to me these notions are now more imaginary than real. Our culture has been radically homogenized.
Cubans all have televisions as well, but I found it was still common, for example, for families to gather after dinner and play music together. Another musical example would be that the intense diversity of Cuban musical forms still has a pronounced regional character. Cuisine would be another example. Here, honestly, regional cuisine is an idea for a show on the food network, not a reality.
In Cuba, a woman in the Orient whispered to me that the reason her beans tasted better was that in that part of the country they put a tablespoon of sugar into the pot at the end. She told me this as if it were some sort of transgressive, unauthorized behavior that explained so very much more about who she was and where she was from than just the beans.
PM: How did you feel coming from a land of cell phones and Internet to travel to a place where these things, for all practical purposes, barely exist?
RF: These kinds of technological innovations are extraordinarily useful, and sometimes even life saving, but if you are like me then at least once week you find it all completely overwhelming. Often I just want to turn all of this stuff off and have some time to think, because the problem with our elevated level of connectivity is that it contributes to fragmenting the day up into so many different moments that I sometimes have trouble concentrating on anything.
So being in Cuba and never hearing a cell phone ring was a blissful experience. (I should note that the book is about my travels there in 2000, and both internet and cellular telephones are now much more widespread in Cuba). But that’s part of the horrible arrogance of travel. If you describe something like a cell phone to someone who is unfamiliar with it, they will grasp the benefits immediately, so when you suggest that “trust me, you’re better off without them,” you sound like a colonialist jerk.
There’s an episode I describe in the book where I met a young guy who wanted nothing more than to get to Miami. He had already risked his life by making at least one attempt, in a boat so small that he had to lean off of the bow over the waves with a handheld compass, keeping it as far away from the metal of the motor, so as to get an accurate bearing.
I generally tried to be completely neutral when I heard these kinds of stories, but he swore he was going to go try again as soon as he could, and I had a handheld GPS in my pocket. So I showed it to him, thinking this really was a technology that could save his life. I should have given it to him, since all I ever used it for was as a kind of psychological crutch, to assure myself that I actually was making progress crossing the island. Ultimately I was uncomfortable with doing anything that might have seemed like I was promoting a future attempt to cross the straights of Florida.
PM: In your opinion, how would an embargo lift on Cuba affect the country and its culture?
RF: I’ve often joked that if the United States is serious about regime change in Cuba they should drop the embargo and give everyone free MTV. I’m completely opposed to the embargo, and to embargos in general, which rarely impact government leaders. Unfortunately I’m opposed to it in a way that is unpopular with just about everyone.
The sort of ultra-right Cuban American perspective seems to be that we have to keep the embargo at all costs, perhaps to symbolize our commitment to toppling the regime, but I would argue that if that is really the goal, maintaining the embargo is counterproductive. My sense in Cuba was that, yes, the embargo cuts Cuba off from the country that would naturally be its number one trading partner, but really the embargo serves as an almost bottomless well for the Cuban government’s propaganda department.
Any possible problem you can think of, from a bad sugarcane harvest to rising rates of cattle theft–I’m making these up as I go along, but you get the idea–is something that can be blamed on the embargo. It’s a crutch that allows the Cuban government to divert attention from areas where it is failing to live up to its responsibilities. This is a heretical view to those at the other end of the spectrum, for whom the embargo is believed to be the source of Cuba’s misfortunes. After almost fifty years of this all kinds of mechanisms have emerged to circumvent the embargo. So the bottom line answer to your question is that since I don’t believe the embargo is actually doing very much at this point I’m not sure how profound the effects of lifting it would be.
PM: Of all your time in Cuba, what continues to stay with you through each day?
RF: It’s a cliché to say the music, but truly not a day goes by at my house without listening to one of the thousands of mind-blowing recordings of Cuban music that are out there.
PM: How does spirituality differ there than here?
RF: Religion was marginalized in Cuba when the country threw itself politically into the waiting arms of the Soviet Union, but Castro has since made various remarks suggesting that, essentially, he was just trying to make Moscow happy. Nonetheless, the result does seem to have been that politics and religion aren’t so knotted up together into a ball of confusion the way they are here. Spiritually, you have the same range of atheists, agnostics, wonderers, faithful believers and extremist kooks that you find here, but a lot of religious practice became more personal and individualized during the Soviet period in Cuba, at exactly the same time that religion was being exploited here as a tool for pushing a political agenda via mass mobilization.
PM: Of all the colors you saw there, which was the most prominent? Where did you see and experience that color the most?
RF: Unless you are out at sea or in the desert I would hope that, despite the damage we’ve done as a species, the dominant color in most places would be the green of things growing, whether crops or forest. Cuba failed spectacularly during the Soviet period at getting away from the oppressive monoculture of sugarcane, and you see vast fields of it growing throughout the island. It’s a surreal golden-green vision. Much the way passing through miles and miles of cornfields characterizes a drive through the Midwest, the cane fields, of Camagüey especially seem sometimes endless, especially when you are on a bicycle fighting a headwind.
PM: You are well traveled. How did the experience in Cuba differ from your other experiences? How was it similar?
RF: What is perhaps most remarkable about travel all over the world is that rural people everywhere in the so-called third world, people we would consider desperately poor, consistently humble you with their hospitality. That openness, and the willingness of people I’ve met traveling to share their last bite of food with you, are really remarkable. As far as what makes Cuba unique, that’s really what the whole book is about!
PM: Is there anything I haven’t asked yet I should?
RF: This is the first time I have shown any of the pictures I took on the trip, so it’s really exciting that they are going to be up at Whitespace for six weeks. I took these largely to help me remember details of places and faces, not with some grand idea of making art, but sometimes you don’t realize what you have until you get it home.
Originally, I had contacted Susan Bridges about doing a reading from “Walking to Guantánamo at Whitespace, and when I sent her some images she pro”posed a complete exhibition. I think it is really brave of her to be doing a show with such a strong literary component; each of these images is associated, for me, with a brief story or anecdote, a text that I hope will amplify the information people take away from the images rather than narrow it in scope.
But the fashion these days seems to be to let the pictures sit on the wall all by themselves, without even a caption. So this show is either bold or retro, depending on how you look at it. It’s also extremely gratifying that when my publisher, Commons Books, saw the pictures, they immediately proposed doing a companion photo book. That will come out later this year.
By Jeremy Abernathy
When Richard Fleming started editing his new book, he was informed that a man in his 40s is still too young to have a midlife crisis. His travel memoir ‘Walking to Guantanamo’ and the eponymous series of photographs document Fleming’s attempt to escape what he calls the “nightmarish mediocrity” of his middle-class Manhattan lifestyle [Whitespace Gallery; January 16—February 29, 2009]. While many American men would have settled for the typical consumerist antidotes—a gym membership, an overpriced muscle car and so on—Fleming chose to up the ante. He decided to travel across the entire island of Cuba, from Pinar del Rio to Guantanamo Bay, in a stubbornly low-carbon-impact journey on foot, by bicycle, and as a hitchhiker.
‘Walking to Guantanamo,’ the book, is a vicarious lesson in pain Fleming becomes something of a gringo Don Quixote: each tiny Cuban town offers renewed opportunities for comedic suffering. The photographs, however, present a different story. Images like The Shave, 2008, focus on the quiet moments of rural Cuban life. A trusting patron surrenders his neck to the neighborhood barber—whose shop is little more than a metal recliner installed on a public veranda. The tone is sober and devoid of the quirky excitement found in Fleming’s written account. Thankfully, the use of explanatory wall texts mediates this narrative disconnect in the exhibition. Though presented merely as a companion to Fleming’s memoir, the ‘Walking to Guantanamo’ photographs provide a timely meditation on the relationship between image and text, biography and genre, and precisely what constitutes a gallery show as an interpretive, experiential whole.
For example, the exhibition contains only a few scenes of urban decay, smartly placed near the gallery’s periphery. The display strategy downplays what has—for many visitors to Latin America—become its own photographic genre: sprawling third-world panoramas produced by profound long-term neglect. This is not Fleming’s picture of Cuba, nor should it be. But city life is important to keep in mind, at least as a counterpoint to Fleming’s main oeuvre. One visitor to the exhibition opening—a woman who immigrated to the United States before Castro’s revolution—was disturbed by the show, citing those urban views as particularly upsetting. They did not match the Cuba she remembered. Of course, she misinterpreted the overall intention of Fleming’s project, which is to complicate, if not debunk, American media’s ideological and overly sensational depictions of Cuba.
Typewriter Repair, 2008, teaches us, for instance, that the art of typewriter repair is a thriving Cuban business. Three columns of old metal shelving create a grid that anchors the image as areas of tan and faded aqua frame an astonishing number of typewriters. The rectilinear floor patterns echo visually the repetition of typewriter keys. We can infer from the wall texts that a nearby photograph—depicting a television repairman seated with his wife—was taken in the same building; the floor patterning is consistent in both images, as though the wall dividing the television and typewriter shops had been installed well after the initial construction.
Who would keep so many broken typewriters? Where a citizen of a wealthy nation might see a worthless piece of junk, in Cuba these machines are still a valuable technology. Fleming emphasizes this narrative dimension of his exhibition; although the photographs’ quality is admittedly poor, their graininess becomes an appropriate, though accidental, part of the overall ‘Walking to Guantanamo’ experience—of image and text.