Rum, Rhythm and Revolution: Joakim Eskildsen in Eastern Cuba

Joakim Eskildsen for TIME
Joakim Eskildsen for TIME
An old man drives his cart, which is pulled by a male goat and full of children in Manati town. A ride around the block costs 1 Cuban peso, or 5 cents of a dollar.

Last year, TIME ran a feature on social changes taking place in Cuba. For the piece, Danish photographer Joakim Eskildsen traveled to Havana to capture images of an evolving country where, for many years, time seems to have stood still. But, Eskildsen reasoned, this apparently idyllic picture may be on the brink of disappearing forever. Indeed, he wondered, are the social changes he witnessed happening only in Havana, or are they spreading throughout the entire island nation? 

Looking for answers, Eskildsen embarked on a second journey to the country, driving over 1200 miles to the east, on not-so-good roads, to learn the truth about Cuba’s poorest regions. On his quest, he visited Santiago de Cuba, known to many as the cradle of Cuban traditional music, the home of rum and the birthplace of the Revolution. He turned his lens on incredible landscapes, and met locals who, despite the economic hardships they face (for many, the ravages of Hurricane Sandy are still a part of everyday life), were both welcoming and down to earth. 

Eskildsen’s work gives us a rare glimpse of these Cuban regions, ones that differ greatly from the relative cosmopolitanism of Havana city. His sensitivity allowed him to catch, with his camera, the spirit of a people who crave change, and hope for a brighter future. Below, TIME’s Director of Photography and Visual Enterprise Kira Pollack, talks to Eskildsen about his trip, about what draws photographers to Cuba, and why he often snubs digital cameras, opting to use film. – Abel Gonzalez Alayon


Kira Pollack: Why are photographers drawn to Cuba?

Joakim Eskildsen: I can only speak for myself, but the mix of colonial history and the effects of the U.S. embargos — as well as the challenges of Cuba’s modern version of communism combined with modern capitalism make this Caribbean island pretty unique. And much of this uniqueness is present visually. So much good and bad has come out of this mix that you can get quite overwhelmed and confused, and I felt I needed to be a bit humble to try to understand it all from a Cuban angle.

KP: The light in Cuba feels quite magical. Why do you think that is?

JE: I expected a lot of sunshine, which indeed there was, but every day, there would be something else, too­ – a heavy shower, clouds; and at dusk there the atmosphere feels very dense and warm — quite unlike the dusk I am used to in my native Denmark, which seems to look blue and feel cold. At noon, the sunlight is sharp and light falls into every crack. The Cuban climate is so mild that people need no heating, and windows are really not needed — so it all feels very open.

KP: This trip encompassed the eastern part of the country – Las Tunas, Granma, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo. What were your impressions? How does this region differ from the one you visited on your earlier trip to Havana?

JE: Besides vegetation becoming more tropical and the climate getting more humid the further south you get, rules appear to be followed more strictly in Eastern Cuba. While people in the Havana region seem to not be bothered by the presence of a photographer, I often experienced a feeling of suspicion in the south, particularly when I entered an official building, a shop, or even just walking around neighborhoods. At times, I was forbidden to photograph, which seldom happened in Northern Cuba.

KP: Is there another trip you would like to take to Cuba?

JE: Cuba is big, and each trip adds new insights and impressions and understanding, so I would very much like to see the northwestern parts that I did not get to visit.

KP: Many photographers have moved on to digital processes, but you have continued to use film. Why?

JE: I have come to love film for many reasons. Firstly, I have used film since 1986, and I know how it reacts in different lights and under various exposures — this is a knowledge that takes time to acquire. Also, whenever I have tested a middle format digital and small size cameras, I have been disappointed with how badly they work with highlights, which can easily be burned out. Digital is naturally sharper and cleaner, but also a lot more clumsy — you often need to change batteries up to three times daily and you need to carry a computer with you as you travel. These cameras also seem to be a lot more sensitive to rough weather, and — to my mind — seem to break more easily.

I carry one or two extra cameras with me, and good digital cameras can cost several times more than film cameras. Also, I do not take so many photographs, preferring just to photograph when I come across something special. With this method, I do not use more than 100 to 300 rolls a year. I also prefer to focus on what is in front of me — I am not a fan of looking at a camera display while I am in the middle of the photographic process, as often happens with digital cameras. I even like the fact that, with film, the development process afterwards is slower because I have to make contacts sheets, and edit on paper. I truly hope that Kodak and Fuji will continue producing their color negative film.


Joakim Eskildsen is a Danish photographer based in Berlin. LightBox previously featured Eskildsen’s work on the evolution of Cuban culture near Havana, and on Americans living below the poverty line.

Abel Gonzalez Alayon is a journalist based in Cuba. Follow him on Twitter @abelcuba.

Kira Pollack is TIME’s Director of Photography and Visual Enterprise.


Related Topics: , , , , , , , , , ,

Latest Posts

2014.  Gaza.  Palestine.  Schoolchildren head to class at the Sobhi Abu Karsh School in the Shujai'iya neighborhood. Operation Protective Edge lasted from 8 July 2014 – 26 August 2014, killing 2,189 Palestinians of which 1,486 are believed to be civilians. 66 Israeli soldiers and 6 civilians were killed.  It's estimated that 4,564 rockets were fired at Israel by Palestinian militants.

Inside Gaza with Photographer Peter van Agtmael

What photographer Peter van Agtmael encountered in Gaza changed the way he worked.

Read More
WASTELAND PERMITTED USE: This image may be downloaded or is otherwise provided at no charge for one-time use for coverage or promotion of National Geographic magazine dated December 2014 and exclusively in conjunction thereof.  No copying, distribution or archiving permitted.  Sublicensing, sale or resale is prohibited.     REQUIRED CREDIT AND CAPTION: All image uses must bear the copyright notice and be properly credited to the relevant photographer, as shown in this metadata, and must be accompanied by a caption, which makes reference to NGM.  Any uses in which the image appears without proper copyright notice, photographer credit and a caption referencing NGM are subject to paid licensing.        Mandatory usage requirements: (Please note: you may select 5 branded images for online use and 3 images for print/unbranded)1. Include mandatory photo credit with each image2. Show the December cover of National Geographic somewhere in the post (credit: National Geographic) unless using only one image3. Provide a prominent link to: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/12/superfund/voosen-textat the top of your piece, ahead of the photos 4. Mention that the images are from "the December issue of National Geographic magazine” GOWANUS CANALNew York, New YorkPollutants: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, lead, copperYear listed: 2010Carved from a tidal estuary 160 years ago, the Gowanus Canal is Brooklyn’s industrial artery—and a deeply polluted waterway. Even so, it’s frequented by herons, seagulls, crabs, and canoeists. Defying local fears of economic stigma, the EPA listed the canal as a Superfund site in 2010. It hopes to start dredging contaminated mud in 2016.

Photojournalism Daily: Nov. 24, 2014

Mideast Israel Palestinians

The Best Pictures of the Week: Nov. 14 – Nov. 21

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 19,271 other followers