What do you know about Cuba? Probably not much, since the island's been isolated from America for more than 60 years. But that icy relationship is finally beginning to thaw.
In his new photography book The Cubans, Jay Seldin cracks Cuban culture open, sharing intimate photos of everyday life in the largest Caribbean nation.
Seldin has traveled to Cuba multiple times a year for the past eight years to immerse himself in culture and tradition. “I didn’t go there in the beginning thinking I’m doing a book,” he told NTRSCTN on the phone Thursday.
“I went there because I enjoyed going to the country. Then, I looked at the breadth of the body of work I’ve done over the years, and decided to create a book.”
Seldin told us about his hopes to increase understanding of "the people and the culture in Cuba" through photography.
What attracted you to Cuba?
I think the people are very generous. They’re warm. They’re open. They come from a country that’s been separated from the U.S. for the last 60 years. And as an American, I’m coming to Cuba to learn something about their culture that I wasn’t able to learn in the U.S. It was a great opportunity … to immerse myself in their culture to some degree.
How did you immerse yourself in Cuba’s culture?
I befriended a number of young Cuban photographers. Through our friendships and our discussions, we talked about taking pictures, and things they were interested in, and things I was interested in. It was through them that I got some of the intimacy in these photographs.
How did you decide what photos to include in your book?
That’s the million-dollar question. It’s not easy. A week before I went to press, I’d already changed half a dozen photos in the book, as well as the order of the book. The first photo in the book is called "Waiting for Relatives." It wasn’t originally in the book. It was a photo I recalled taking because waiting is what Cuba is about. They wait on line to get food from the state store. They’re always waiting. In this photo, they were waiting to see if their relatives were coming to the states. They don’t always get accurate info on when people are coming to visit.
The book is really a collection of stories. Here’s one little story: I was there with my wife one time, and she had come with a group. After the group experience was over, we took a ride in a cab to do a little sightseeing. The cab driver—who spoke perfect English—was having a conversation with us.
He asked us if we know our neighbors. In Cuba, he knew all of his neighbors. Everybody in his neighborhood is involved in making sure everybody is safe and healthy. The neighborhood would take it upon themselves to help a neighbor in need. I thought that was very interesting and telling about Cuban culture and Cuban life.
The book’s introduction says, “It’s hard to find documentary photography in museums and galleries these days.” Why is that?
Today’s world in photography is very different than it started off to be. Everybody thinks they’re a photographer. Everybody has an iPhone. They take 20 pictures in the time I take one picture. I think documentary photography is an art form that requires you to be aware of composition.
This isn’t war photography. It’s more street photography. It’s still the same principle, though. You have to get in and get the shot while you can. You have to be very aware of your surroundings, because people don’t keep the same kind of expression on their faces.
What can other travel photographers learn from The Cubans?
I think they can learn the way the composition is created, the way the tone is manufactured, and the humanity of the photos. They are really intimate photographs of a look inside Cuban culture and Cuban families that you don’t often see. People going to Cuba are always taking photos of the 1950s cars.
Photography is not about the car. It’s really about the people in the car.