by Edmundo Desnöes
Cut, no. 33, Feb. 1988, pp. 69-81
Our heads are full of mountains, cities, faces, situations and objects. In our memory we store thousands of tidy images which we have never personally seen but still know.
We hear about our heavily mustached great-grandfathers and Sarah Bernhardt; about the soldiers in World War I in their trenches; about the Kremlin and its gilded onion domes and New York and its skyscrapers; about Martí all dressed in black, against a backdrop of vines and rocks, and Gandhi, gaunt and semi-nude; about the African jungles; about the moon craters and Hiroshima destroyed by a nuclear blast; about John Kennedy's assassination; about Japanese gardens; about Lenin and Mao Tse Tung; about the microbes in a drop of water and the spiraling of a galaxy. Immediately a corresponding visual image comes to mind, and almost always it will be a photographic one-we remember a photo seen in a book, magazine or newspaper.
Photography has created and added to our reality. It constitutes an inseparable component of our knowledge of the world.
But reality and photography are not the same. In art criticism, photographic realism has become a pejorative term, signaling that a photo is being received as no more than a crude slice of life. Such reception occurs often, even in the U.S.S.R., where the word realism enjoys an almost magical prestige and has become a password: "I can't understand abstract painting," asserts Soviet painter Pavel Korin. "I'm against photographic realism, but I'm a romantic realist." Even those like him who would defend realism against all odds reject photography, which they find cold and impersonal.
Nevertheless, photography has deceived everyone. There's no con game more persuasive than photography. In fact, images are no more than the expression of the invisible person working behind the camera. They are not reality but rather form part of our culture's language. The photojournalist or artist selects and chooses the angle, the exact moment, the light, the image itself. Any given reality can be seen through thousands of photographic eyes.
Photography does not provide objective truth. It can be as abstract as Jackson Pollock's paintings. There are takes on a situation, visual interpretations — as seen in electronic photos of stars or of atomic nuclei — which only specialists could recognize if the photos had no captions. Like painting, photography forms part of people's cultural reality.
Some years ago a Catholic missionary had a bright idea: drop food packages into an area of the Venezuelan jungle inhabited by Sirishana natives. Along with the food and trinkets the priest dropped many photos showing jovial smiling images of himself. Herein lay the project's originality. Once the natives had become familiar with his image, he intended to parachute down from the sky.
He assumed the natives down there would recognize him and associate him with food's prosperity and trinkets' magic. He chose what he thought was an auspicious date, the Epiphany, January 6. He landed among people he assumed to be already catechized, and not much time passed before those innocent Sirishanas had eaten him for a snack. The natives indeed had gathered up the photos and studied them with real concentration but had not seen anything. To their eyes the portrait's light and shadows appeared as chaos. They did not identify, know how to look at, or recognize anything in a simple photograph. Whether apocryphal or authentic, this tale tells a truth. Photography is not a direct experience but a cultural event within a context.
We live in a physical and visual age. In the twentieth century, objects overwhelm everything. We have merchandise in every color and form, movies, magazines. And photography inserts itself into almost all of this.
Photographic criticism, however, lacks ideas. Or it is merely rich in technical details — describing the newest model camera, a special light meter, or a soft brush to dust off the lens. Such criticism, directed primarily at amateurs, is promoted by manufacturers who just want to sell their products. But to analyze how photography expresses contemporary humanity, we still do not have an intelligent, systematic mode of criticism. We rarely analyze images. Rather we look at them mechanically, subconsciously incorporating their content. We accept photography like fabric design or stage props. In our heads, press photos merge with world news; a familiar portrait with everyday life; and a magazine photo with our morning coffee. Sometimes we have a hard time separating out what we saw in a photograph from our flesh and blood experience of people and things.
It is really fascinating to try to clear up this clutter, to try to analyze all the ways that photography has become tied up with our everyday experience. It's a delicate operation. Photography remains tightly bound to economic and political interests, as well as to dreams or to art. For us in Cuba, for example, the photographic image of underdevelopment constantly meshes with our own experience and has become a decisive ingredient in how we view the Third World. We live in that world yet hardly realize how we have been conditioned by the photographic viewpoint of the other world. We often base our own self-image upon journalistic advertising, fashion, or art photography, which presumes to express our milieu.
Photography is a much more influential and pervasive cultural ingredient than most people can discern.
ADVERTISING AND FASHION
My first contact with photography ended in disillusion. fifteen years ago my imagination seized upon an old colonial town, Trinidad, as I saw it in a book of photos, Trinidad de Cuba by Esteban A. DeVarona. The placid images of solid colonial houses, a milk man riding on a burro down the cobblestone streets, the white screens and stained glass, mountains viewed through the pattern of an old balcony with black bars and shadowy interior patios — in my mind all these images blended into one image of a romantic colonial paradise. Now I think (then I never even suspected it) that what really engrossed me was the vision's tight unity. Each photo contributed to a general feeling, an aura: Trinidad appeared like a worn out village but with no impurities. I had seen a lot of colonial buildings around Havana, but the strident modern rhythm of the city engulfed everything. Business, mass transportation and politics had erased their facades.
Then I visited Trinidad. Just our arrival was enough to overturn my dream. We did enter the town on cobblestone streets but in a '51 car. The contrasts scratched up my romantic photographic vision. Our car, the buses, and the other vehicles moving through the city didn't have anything to do with those photos of Trinidad. In the book I only saw burros, horses, and carts on the streets. To see the mountains through the grill of a balcony, like in the photos, you would have to sit on the floor or be a dwarf. Later I heard how much the Trinidadians rejected those huge round cobblestones which destroyed their shoes and the springs and tires of every vehicle. The photos of Trinidad that I had seen were lies, a photographer's vision, almost a dream.
That disillusion bore fruit for me. From that moment on, I understood how photography was part of the world of culture and a language for interpreting, expressing and controlling human life.
Eight years later Life magazine tried to pull the same stunt on us in Cuba. This time the pictures were in full color, embellished with the slender beauty and exotic presence of a group of professional models. The women filed by and were photographed in a romantic and dreamy style [by Gordon Parks]. "In the midst of the tropical colors and the historical splendor of Trinidad, Cuba" (Life magazine, May 5, 1958). Now the lie was complete: Trinidad's ruins had become inhabited by modern nymphs. The models wore Panama hats inspired by those "used by Cuban sugar planters." The women climbed the belfry of San Francisco monastery to see if someone were coming down the mountains on a white horse and they wore "evening coats of flowing taffeta," so that their figures would easily stand out from a distance. Other models stood caged behind the high, intricate iron work of windows, under the stained glass' brilliant colors, and in the patios' shadows with the flowers out of focus. This time I recognized the fantasy even though the models were really there. It was the photographer's fantasy. This time I didn't even try to visit Trinidad in order to meet a Spanish landowner's daughter or the landowner himself, who had the presence of "a Spanish grandee." With sadness and pedantry, I understood that a photo always approached a vision more closely than real facts.
If photography belongs to culture, then it can legitimately use any and every artifice: camera, lighting, exposure, angle, or any trick of the camera obscura. For that reason, fashion and advertising photography both constitute a valid and authentic utilization of the medium, for both partake of the illusory function of art.
Very little difference distinguishes how a press photo lies — let's say one of Adolph Hitler in Paris prancing ridiculously in front of the Arc de Triomphe — and how a Vogue cover does. The photo of the Nazi dictator just seems much more real than the one of the model posed in an eccentric gesture with a huge hat (although possibly she's very much more alive now than Hitler).
An infinite number of photographers reject and despise reconstructed images. "Ambient light," however, is as much a problem of style for them as is "high key." These people have not understood that truth in photography is itself an illusion. Irving Penn and Richard Avedon — consciously or unconsciously — still have to use studios, cameras, and dark rooms just as much as the French impressionist painter, Pierre Bonnard, for example, used canvas, oil and brushes. The elderly Picasso stated it precisely: Now we know that art is not truth. Art is a lie which allows us to approach truth or at least that truth which lies within our grasp. The artist must find the way to convince the public of the absolute truth of his or her lies.
Few photographers live so enmeshed in this world as those responsible for creating an illusion of beauty for women or for transforming a stupid bottle of rum into an intensely decorative visual object. They are creators of dreams and lies. They satisfy and exploit the realm of possibilities. Their images project concrete, profound, social and psychological realities.
Advertising implacably uses photography to lie and deceive. None of us will likely find ourselves suddenly enjoying the sun and waves of a deserted beach, nor will we probably be sitting drinking Barcardi rum next to a dazzling blonde. Everything that people sell gets photographed under the most favorable light. This photography represents the materialization of a desired but unreachable ideal. Thus an advertising photograph can become converted into a symbol, as mythical and as intoxicating as the religious images of Fra Angelico. The winged angel of "The Annunciation" is as evocative as the image of Suzy Parker introducing the lipstick shade "Persian Melon." (Someday Suzy Parker will be remembered as the model for certain pieces of advertising as much as Simonetta Vespucci is for the Renaissance paintings of Botticelli and Piero di Cosimo.) Capitalist advertising images symbolize our industrial civilization in which the right to consume is more ingrained than freedom of religion, for example, or even freedom of speech. All people today demand the right to consume. With light, smiles, youth, exoticism, sharpened or blurred edges, and color — advertising photography creates an ideal reality.
Everything becomes subordinated to the right to consume (production) and to enjoy (profit). Capitalist laws and institutions favor current production and search out potential consumption. And the Third World seems a world to be used — an available pleasure, a product. In advertising it becomes an exotic background with deserted beaches, folkloric costumes, and solicitous natives; there a tourist can vacation in paradise. The natives live there to satisfy the tourist's needs; even the landscape is obliged to appeal. Recently in a magazine I saw an excessively sweet and repulsive old woman in a bamboo rocker surrounded by three courteous and abject servants. Two men were dressed in white, both wearing a kind of fez and picturesque apron. One refreshed the old woman with a delicate straw fan, and the other held a fragile umbrella over her head (both the fan and the parasol were typical craft objects made by hand). Kneeling before the old woman, a young native woman was hanging a garland of flowers around the woman's wrinkled neck. Everybody smiled. It is a full-page advertisement for an airline (Time, Nov. 11, 1964). Under the photograph you can read in tiny print: "Photographed at the Raffles Hotel, Singapore." The style of that photograph was as dated as a 1935 calendar of the flat, superficial postcard-style illustrations in The National Geographic. Nevertheless, it has an inevitable impact. A lot of times the advertising photos that capture our eye lack aesthetic originality. When ideas, impact and creative imagination do converge in an advertisement, that advertisement achieves the same quality as a good painting, but it also has the advantage of mass distribution. Naturally there is a strong dose of alienation in commercial art, a dependency upon the vicious cycle of desires and consumption.
Other advertisements demonstrate products from the Third World which you can enjoy. Ads for Colombian coffee utilize a color photo of a peasant. Wearing his sombrero and his cool white suit, he stands blond and smiling next to a cart with large primitive wheels and a crude sack of coffee grains carefully placed on the floor of a photographic studio, probably in New York. Grains of coffee especially harvested for the industrial consumer!
In advertising, underdevelopment, in fact, exists in flagrant contradiction to that image: it is a world of hunger, social chaos, and parasites in bodies as well as in governments and economies. You just have to remember this: two-thirds of the world's population lives hungry, and most of the world lives in points on the map like Singapore and Colombia.
These advertising photographs do not express social reality. Rather, they express the ideals of a society filled with indifferent consumers and ruthless producers.
Fashion photography shares the supreme artifice that advertising images have-although the fashion photographers are more sophisticated artistically. Ads generally sell a product that is as well defined and which stands out. Everything is obvious; yet fashion images are smiling and mysterious, saturated with ritual posturing.
Here, too, we encounter an ideal of beauty and pleasure. Images have to change constantly so as to capture the eye's attention. A primitive environment is especially perturbing; the contrast between rustic life and expensive and artificial fashions always attracts the glance. That's the case with certain photos by Saul Leiter who uses the Third World for a set.
The first example that comes to mind appeared in Harper's Bazaar almost five years ago. A full-lipped model is looking out a rough window of a Latin American hut. In her right hand she holds a branch of limes, with leaves included, and she wears an enormous starched white hat while, bored and sensual, she looks condescendingly at a native girl. The little girl with long dark hair stands outside and touches the window sill tenderly with her diminutive hand. The photo is flat and we only recognize the hut because of the rustic window and a strip of dry palm leaves hanging from the roof. The girl's dark hair contrasts with the model's white headgear, and everything is unified by a screened surface — as if there were a metal screen-which produces a reverberating image. Underdevelopment is utilized here to elicit surprise and to enhance the exotic elegance of the woman's headgear. The child looking admiringly up at the model above her adds an extra element of glamour, and, of course, a pretty pathetic one.
Last year (1964), Leiter repeated that gimmick in Harper's Bazaar, this time in an underdeveloped urban environment. Two opposing pages suffice to give a vision of Mexico: you can enjoy an enchanting romantic vacation there. On the lef, "A pristine, white eyelet evening dress is being serenaded by the Lindo Orchestra at the Hotel San Angelo." On the opposite page we see a street scene: in an enormous poster which advertises a brand of cigarettes, we see the singer Jorge Negrete with his huge mariachi hat. "Dressed perfectly with no effort at all, black as lava," the model leans against the billboard and imitates the open mouth of the Mexican singer with two native girls also trying to imitate Negrete. The image has a certain ingenuous quality: the huge image of the singer, the sophisticated model, the old chipped walls, and the two little girls shrieking. By accident or deliberately, the photo is neatly divided into two by a white reflection, which erases part of the billboard (the words of the advertisement, because this picture is trying to sell fashion and not cigarettes).
Everything picturesque and exotic and beautiful within underdevelopment gets incorporated into photography. The environment is used to create an illusion that in that place tourists will live out a passionate, amorous adventure, be admired by all the natives, and — if everything else fails — have an excellent landscape to restore their eyes and their spirits. The most accomplished images, like those of Leiter or Gordon Parks, are efficient and crude at the same time. And this image of underdevelopment does not just come from the Western countries. We ourselves often fall victim to the form in which others see us. Thus we often lose our own perspective and we corrupt our own image of ourselves, so that we live out a lie instead of understanding it as a projection. We see ourselves as others from industrial countries see us, or as they want to see us. In Western Europe just as in the Soviet Union and the other European socialist countries, people cling to a distorted image of underdevelopment.
In fact, the socialist countries understand the latent violence that exists in those countries which have been exploited for centuries and kept outside of the margin of history; yet sometimes these countries, too, look upon us as primitive children living in an exotic landscape. On the cover of a book about the Cuban agrarian reform published in the German Democratic Republic, we see a photo of Norka, one of our most famous Cuban models, dressed as a militia woman with her rifle pointing to the sky. In the background there's a drawing of a succulent, luxurious, imaginary pineapple.
The jokes they make and the disdain the capitalist countries have for the Third World culminate in the photos like those that appeared in the summer 1964 issue of Harper's Bazaar — the African continent serves to inaugurate a line of exotic furs, hats, and showy stockings. One photo used two black faces, sad in their humiliation, to highlight a red leather shoe made from snake skin or crocodile. Those solemn blacks would have the moral right to cut the throat of any white person who wears shoes like that.
There is an exoticism and elegance in all these photos, that's for sure, but also cruelty. It's the cruelty of using people as decorative elements. Here there is no deception as with the humanitarian mask worn by the great colonizing powers in Africa. The photo above expresses the real relation between oppressor and victim: disdain and exploitation on the part of the colonizer, and humiliation and blind hate in the guts of the colonized. This photo by Gordon Parks is more eloquent than any political pamphlet.
This lack of awareness sometimes brings us to a ridiculous extreme: the ad campaign for Tergal, a new no-nwrinkle, durable fabric, produced an ad in Paris-Match (1965) which featured three men in colorful shirts and big pointed hats — Mexicans with rifles in their hands. On the top in red letters appeared the word "Revolution" and on the bottom, "Tergal, a revolution under the sun." Another lie is perpetrated by photography. We know it. We are living out a real revolution.
Life does not imitate art, as Oscar Wilde believed, nor is the opposite true. Art "means something." It provides a world of interrelated cultural values. That's why so often we find ourselves in a situation which seems like an art work that we know or we find ourselves in front of art works which seem to imitate life.
These multiple mirrors have often confused us. Recently I ran across artificial fashion images in the streets of a Mexican village. There were two living myths, Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau, walking down the street of Cocoyac surrounded by a chorus of little children who were looking at them and smiling. This photo appeared in the magazine Elle, illustrating an article on Bardot and Moreau filming VIVA MARIA in Mexico. Something which seemed completely posed and artificial in Harper's Bazaar became a street event in Cocoyac, right near that hacienda which Emiliano Zapata and his soldiers destroyed during the Mexican Revolution. Both women are dreams in the flesh. They came walking out of a fashion magazine to become world news.
In the beginning of our century, the photos of the Mexican Revolution created the most powerful international image of Latin America. The peasant from one country became the symbol of a whole continent as photos and etchings of the humble armed peasants of Mexico were reproduced throughout the world. After the revolution, for more than forty years, the broad-brimmed sombrero and the loose white pants and shirt provided a universal representation of the Latin American — whether Cuban or Brazilian, Peruvian or Argentine. A local image became a generalization.
Not until the Cuban revolution did a new image of Latin America circulate internationally in photographs: the beard of Fidel Castro and that of his soldiers, the bearded revolutionaries. If the image of the Mexican revolution is the product of both photographs and etchings, the Cuban revolution has been reproduced in Paris, New York, Peking, and New Delhi almost exclusively through photographic images.
The huge sombrero of Zapata's followers and the bearded rebel are firmly developed and imprinted in our contemporary memory. They are photographic images disseminated by books, periodicals and magazines all over the world.
Press photos are not the result of an impartial eye. We can easily discover the slant, bias, and intention of any photo in a newspaper or magazine: a photo might be used to provoke aversion, fear, disdain or hate or to awaken our sympathies and make us feel justice or indignation. We just need to observe the international press photos of Fidel Castro since the revolution, for example, to discover if a publication supports or opposes the Cuban revolution or simply observes it like a spectator. Sometimes it's not even necessary to read the captions.
I was in New York in 1958 and 1959. Being Cuban, I read the newspapers closely. It turned out to be fascinating because I discovered how the photographs were adjectives that subtly qualified the revolution. One day Time published a photo of Fidel reclining in front of a hut in the Sierra Maestra, apparently resting. If memory doesn't betray me, I think that in fact he had covered his face or had a hat or book resting on his chest. Immediately I could see that this photograph opposed the revolution, that it showed Fidel as if he were a bum, indifferent and sleepy. In the United States, where the puritan tradition exalts work as the greatest virtue, this was the worst criticism that you could level against a Latin American.
In early 1959, Look published various stories about Fidel Castro in which Fidel appeared like a friendly leader, sympathetic, human, and smiling. However, a cover of Life during the same period presented him as a barbarian, reckless and without breeding, a man who appealed more to fanaticism than reason. He appeared as "a Mongol conquistador," as Herbert Matthews described the image. Other times, as in Holiday magazine, he was shown behind a desk in an office or as a brilliant lawyer. And all of those pictures created portraits of the same man.
In the magazine Soviet Union and in Viva Cuba (a book about the trip of the Cuban leader to the USSR), Fidel almost always appears smiling, embracing Nikita Kruschev during his visit to the USSR, or amicably conversing with workers in a factory or with Soviet leaders. Fidel is also shown as our revolution's symbol, with a heroic gesture emphasizing his stature and patriotism. This image is both dignified and patenalistic, and is captured in a flat academic style. Images in the Soviet press are determined by how the Soviets conceive of society, the Party, and its representatives' function. Fidel is a prestigious leader in the Third Word, a revolutionary hero, a man loved by his people, always affable. And photography assists this vision even though the vision's usefulness gets limited by the conventionality of Soviet photography, where even today many press photos are posed and even retouched.
Sometimes the caption's inference enters openly into conflict with the image's slant. Thus, photos of Fidel taken by Lee Lockwood during the July 26, 1964, celebration and published in Life have this ambiguity. Life uses the caption under an image of Fidel playing ball with the North American journalists in order to neutralize Lockwood's friendly lens. The editors tried to prove that if Fidel appeared likable and affable, that was just a pose, a demagogic gesture to win over the press.
Cuba never formed part of the French colonial empire, so in Paris journalists could observe the situation in Cuba with more emotional detachment, even as something romantic. In France, Fidel is a Robin Hood; the Cuban revolution means the awakening of Latin America. But the French press can't help falling into exoticism. Paris-Match (Sept. 7, 1963) published an article on Fidel going underwater fishing. The photos by Pick emphasized a primitive hero, a Caribbean Ulysses. Our underdeveloped Fidel appeared shirtless and barefoot, the photos emphasized his corpulence and vitality. The first sentence of the article proved the exotic bias international news has in representing the "backward" world: "This calm cod fisherman swimming in Caribbean waters — in those very waters in which a world war has almost exploded — is Fidel Castro." And we see captions like this: "On board his ship Bravo Cuba the head of state becomes a character out of Hemingway." Or, "It's 5:00 PM and still he hasn't eaten anything since last night."
Fidel's Cuban image is multiple and spontaneous; one photographer who has best captured the lived aspects of Fidel's public and human personality is Alberto Korda. First he showed the hero of our war of liberation, Fidel high up in the Sierra Maestra, in a photo that later was used for a dramatic poster during the October missile crisis with the caption, "Commander in Chief, at your command." Then Korda went on to take images of Fidel conversing animatedly with people in all parts of the country: a cooperative, the street. And Korda also offers us the human image of Fidel in the Soviet Union trying to ski and slipping and falling in the snow. Such an image unmasks any false personality cult and affirms Fidel's humanity, the natural fallibility of people using materials they have never had to dominate.
Now this variety of visions and interpretations of reality sometimes limits our Cuban photographers. They often let themselves be carried away by the situation, by the image itself, instead of dominating the image with their own intelligence. The technical level of Cuban photography is very high in comparison with any other country in Latin America; just look at magazines like Siempre or Cruzeiro. Still, the contemporary Cuban photographer has not yet fully grasped the way that photography is also a form of expression which should function like a language.
Even very specific images tend to get turned into symbols; the mind assimilates them as exemplifying a much broader reality. The smiling natives whom National Geographic presents in its unimaginative photographic style have surpassed that and become for many people the "reality" of African, Australian, or Latin American aboriginal societies. These photos remain an unconscious ingredient in our minds and function each time we think about the world's primitive peoples. The photos have left us with the vague impression that these communities live in a kind of paradise, where people have not yet tasted of the fruit of good and evil.
The smiling Central American stevedore loading a heavy branch of bananas becomes an image of all stevedores, and it is used to convince unsophisticated viewers that United Fruit Company is the best possible thing that could ever happen to these candid children of nature.
If Time publishes an image of a South Vietnamese's decapitated body abandoned in a field after battle, the photo does not just represent a war zone. It becomes proof of the Vietcong's cruelty. Sometimes such an image backfires and is transformed into a symbol of man's inhumanity to man and of the horrors of war. This happened with the scandalous Associated Press photo of a regular soldier from the reactionary South Vietnamese army deliberately sticking a knife into the guts of a Vietcong rebel.
Photography, I repeat, is transparent. You just have to know how to look. You could discover, for example, the North American attitude toward all of Vietnam in the expression of the Ambassador Maxwell Taylor, tall and Anglo-Saxon, looking down over his shoulder at General Kahn as if at a repulsive toad (Newsweek, Jan. 18, 1965). Press photos always express some kind of judgment, and this interpretation easily becomes "truth" for mass publication's unsophisticated victims. If you looked at a contemporary photo of two white, blond, dead mercenaries surrounded by a group of Congolese rebels with spears and strange headgear, you might momentarily forget that whites have enslaved, exploited, mutilated, and despised blacks for centuries, and that even today in Africa, for every mercenary that the rebels manage to liquidate, the mercenaries assassinate dozens of Congolese. But many can forget all this when they see such a color photo in Time (Jan. 1, 1965) accompanied by the following caption: "The savage conflict: Wearing grotesque regalia, Congolese rebels rejoice over dead mercenaries."
Soviet photographs, for example those showing Krushchev during his visit to India, Burma and Indonesia in 1960, make a political declaration. They have three basic themes: masses, political leaders and industrial development. The following images — flat, stereotypical photos which appeared in different Soviet publications — each reveal an attitude: Krushchev's being received by Nehru or Sukarno; a garland of flowers being hung around Krushchev's neck by an innocent, "typical" little girl; innumerable official receptions in which functionaries toast a lasting friendship between both countries; visits to iron foundries or steelworks or a state farm where agriculture has been mechanized; the crowds in New Delhi or Jakarta hailing the Soviet leader in the streets.
The Soviets usually make accurate generalizations, but too sweeping — the leaders, the masses, production — and they often overlook details. Indeed, the Soviet style is the opposite of the North American and Western style, one where details are presented as if the detail told the whole story.
In fact, press photos provide valuable documents about the style of a given historical period. They show people's body language and dress style, how people have regarded themselves, and how individuals are related to everything in their milieu. Sometimes, however, photojournalism transcends the documentary and creates profound images, symbols, and art. Press photographers never stop clicking their shutters, so they constantly have an opportunity, at one moment or another, to shoot a profound image, in which composition and event become unified in an unforgettable photograph. This happened with a press photo taken of Lumumba a few days before his assassination. He had just been arrested and a soldier forcibly turned his head toward the camera. That created a pathetic image which has infiltrated and impregnated our consciousness — it shows a physical humiliation which no white chief of state would ever endure. Such a gesture could happen only in a colonized country, where the individual is not granted respect and where the Western powers have so denied the natives their humanity that the underdeveloped themselves (in this photo, the soldiers are all black Africans) doubt their equality to other people, especially to white people.
The North American press offers two images of underdevelopment: either a rich environment, safe for tourists and for investments, or social chaos. Revolution and the entry of backward countries into modern technology, dignity, and history appear inverted: as the proof of backwardness, of a world which screams when it ought to speak in a modulated voice like the whites, which uses bullets instead of laws to enforce justice. The Soviet press uses photos to present the masses, deprived for centuries of their human rights and ready to throw out their rulers, or, if that's already been achieved, ready to build a new society under the direction of nationalist leaders.
In any case, all photojournalism contains a trap. Constant pressure and a leveling effect inhibit the creative development of artists who work for the news. This iron cast deceives us with its uniformity. Press photographers always find themselves obligated — consciously or unconsciously — to photograph things in a mediocre, uniform style to insure that the observer's eye never discovers the secret: that photography is a lie, with everything depending on an individual photographer's focus and point of view. Photojournalists have to stick to the established style, with slight personal modifications, so that images in magazines and newspapers do not contradict each other. Editors and publishers want to sell photographic images as the objective truth. That's the source of the problems which creative people working in photojournalism face.
Cartier-Bresson, who began using a very personal style, ended up without any visual personality at all after he founded the photography agency, Magnum, and began to work for magazines — and on assignment. In contrast, Eugene Smith abandoned Life magazine because he could not agree with how his pictures were cropped and laid out. He fully understood how they were using him, and treating him badly, how they were deforming his work. But only a few can extract themselves like this, and they do so at the risk of remaining bitter and out in the street. Economic pressures require many photographers to work for publications, conforming to a rigid pattern. Almost unconsciously, their style begins to deteriorate, losing the force of a profound and authentic vision. If the institution of photojournalism would let a creative photographer develop his or her personality and point of view, everyone else would discover that photography does not provide the objective truth. Every photographer would have a style, just like painters do. And you'd easily see an individual's interpretation and language. Of course, once this secret is out, no one will believe in photography's informative truthfulness. That's what gnaws at photographers who both have to earn a living and want to be creatively expressive.
If we used photojournalism as a language, as a form of dialectical argument, we would enrich our world. Such photography would not deceive but rather it would function as an instrument for intellectual labor. We could, as a people, consciously empower ourselves with all the resources within our reach in order to understand ourselves and express our world.
The Family of Man is probably the most widely distributed individual collection to give us a photographic image of the residents of people on this earth. It's the work of one artist, who selected the 503 photographs taken in 68 countries for an original show. Edward Steichen — as the exposition's catalog clearly signals on its cover — created the show, selecting images and arranging them with a defining structure. He interwove images from underdeveloped countries and emphasized them within his total vision.
The exposition was based on a preconceived idea. As he points out in his introduction, Steichen tried to prove that "the art of photography is a dynamic process giving form to ideas and explaining people to people." He conceived of the exposition "as a mirror of the universal elements and emotions in the everydayness of life." The first part of this quotation validly defines people as cultural beings. However, the second part is objectionable. When he affirms that this collection is "a mirror of the universal elements and emotions in the everdayness of life," he excludes photography from art and deprives photograph of its essential creative function. And when he presumes to demonstrate that this collection provides "a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind (sic) throughout the world," Steichen promotes a dangerous illusion and social fantasy. He'd have been much more accurate if he had tried to present the inequality of the world's peoples. All conflict and violence in the contemporary world in part arise from differences between people, differences determined by the continent and the system under which they've had the luck or misfortune to have been born. This is especially true in my own case — speaking from the point of view of an underdeveloped island which is desperately trying to overcome backward social and economic structures and to participate in the dangerous but inevitable adventure of modern humanity. We are entering into history and ceasing to be squandered and abandoned humanity.
One image by Eugene Harris was selected as the exposition's theme: the Peruvian Indian who smiles while playing his flute. It is symbolic — a romantic, ingenuous symbol of the unity of all peoples. It fails to consider that the Latin American Indian lives in abject poverty, simultaneously exploited and rejected and abandoned by the wealth of an industrial era. Children such as this Peruvian Indian rarely live to adulthood. Steichen thus distorts this image and wrenches it out of social reality.
The first topic set forth in the exposition is "love." Then and there we are witness to a visual lie. An indigenous couple from New Guinea (in a photo by Lawrence LeGuay) appear courting. That image is laid out next to Italian couples, North American couples, and French couples. Yet, love in the jungle and in ignorance does not mean the same as in civilization amid comfortable surroundings. A few pages later we have "infancy" — as if children were the same in India, Lapland, Austria, the United States, and Cuba. However, the sophisticated and secure existence of a little blonde girl, photographed by Arthur Penn in New York, has very little in common with the life of a child in starving India or with children in the cold country of Lapland or with a child's life in Cuba where it's tropical and underdeveloped.
Such a lumping together is repeated throughout the exposition, whether about work, democracy, justice or truth. The exhibition's structure corroborates the fundamental difference between sociology and artistic reality. Photography is an idiom, and it can lie as easily as words. I cannot accept Steichen's vision, but I must see it as coherent and effective, at least artistically. His style is consistent, and he offers a very persuasive, romantic image of human solidarity.
Let me make this clear: the world's backward regions would never have played such a conspicuous role in an exposition 50 years ago. The ease with which many people accept this equality, at least visually, represents a development in world consciousness. But that acceptance also contains its own way of hiding an important factor: equality here has become a photographic ideal, not a reality. We can only understand all this when we understand how photography works as a language, one which we ought to grasp fully so that we understand the meaning behind its words.
In fact, advertising and fashion photography use the world's underdeveloped regions in a way that approximates much more closely the real, abject situation than does the "humanity is one" theme proposed by The Family of Man. Steichen's interpretation does not provide us with the experience of reality, as he might assume, but with an illusion.
Lee Lockwood recently worked in Cuba for a few months on a book of photographs that were to interpret contemporary life on our island. One afternoon we were discussing a book about Cuba published in the United States. I called Theodore Draper the most informed critic of Cuba, but the least aware of what was really going on here. Draper had all the information, but he was prejudiced and used that information against the revolution. Cuba is an emotional experience, a moral one, and without experiencing that reality it is impossible for a critic to understand anything. Lockwood said he thought that his own book would be meaningful because with photos, he could communicate emotion, vivid details, and the revolution's aura. He was right: photography does recreate experience emotionally. A visual image is essentially emotional. It utilizes the five senses, bodies, expressions, and objects as raw material a lot more than literature or painting does.
Nevertheless, when photos reach the level of aesthetic synthesis, they immediately become transformed into static experiences. That's clearly the case with Cartier-Bresson. His "decisive moments" are always complete in themselves and transcend objective reality to create a closed-off interior unity. Every aspect of the image gets entwined inside the composition and closed down by the frame. Cartier-Bresson's photographs from Indonesia have this paralyzing effect. Viewers are impelled to believe in the perfection of that photographic reality because the image is so harmonious in and of itself. "Don't change anything," they feel moved to exclaim — like stupid tourists in some exotic and primitive country. The image's closed-off architecture creates a kind of beauty which tends (as the Greeks thought) to justify itself. Art frequently creates a comfortable, self-sufficient world removed from action.
"The sense aroused by an impure art are kinetic feelings, the feelings of desire and repulsion," explained Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
"Desire moves us to possess something, to move towards something; repulsion moves us to give it up, to get away from something. Arts which come out of those sentiments, either pornographic or didactic, are therefore not pure art. The aesthetic emotion (now I'm using this in its general sense) is in and of itself static. Spirit remains paralyzed and above desire and repulsion."
The viewer frequently feels paralyzed facing a successful Cartier-Bresson. He emphasizes the geometric designs of Indonesia's rice paddies, coconut trees reflected in the water in between the tufts of rice; a relation between the figures in the background, working, and a solitary silhouette in the foreground which easily allows us to enter into the image. This closed structure also becomes clear in viewing the relation between the two market women, both carrying baskets on their heads. One shows off her youth, with downcast eyes and arrogant breasts, and the other, an old woman, squarely faces the first one, with a laughing glance and flat dry breasts. Cartier-Bresson uses the same kind of harmonious integration in images of India and Mexico as well.
Alvarez Bravo, with his photographs of death, architecture and simple Mexican life, has the same cold quality. Eugene Smith's images of Albert Schweitzer in Africa are more dynamic but still rest too much on the myth of the great white doctor who plays Bach in the exotic black jungle. Robert Frank has tried to get far beyond the mere appearances of underdevelopment. More than anything else, it's because his vision of humanity contains many shadows. It's the opposite of a dramatic or exotic image and utilizes moments of abandonment more than any decisive highlight. Frank's images of Peru (the few I've been able to see) are pathetic. Beyond that, Frank has a dialectical understanding of photographic imagery. He never pretends to capture and isolate everything in one image as Cartier-Bresson does but rather gives a fragment of a whole, one that could be constructed out of interrelated images. Penn's photographic essay on Peru, although seemingly only skin deep, manages to bring to light the ingenuous exhibitionism of Lima's poor, and he uses knitted masks in a way that is faithful to the Indian personality's introspective passivity. Penn also uses irony subtly to mock exoticism.
The principal limitation most creative photographers face when they film outside their own cultural environment is that they tend to work with clichés and conventional ideas. They might make successful images but with a stereotypical content. This can occur as often with Cartier-Bresson as with Eisenstaedt, Emil Schulthess, Eugene Smith, or Penn. Mexico gets shown as full of color, Africa as wild, Negroes as physically beautiful, and India as religious and esoteric. The artists photograph out of their own prejudices and end up with a series of simplistic, flat, one-sided images. Nevertheless, the photos have a huge impact the situations photographed, even though superficial, overwhelm us because of their concrete reality.
So there's this image of Cuba, for example: it's a tropical paradise with innumerable natural beaches, sensuality, and mostly happy people full of tropical rhythm. At least this was the image generally perpetuated in fashion, advertising and art photography. Then the revolution forced many of us to reconsider our own image. Now we have another image, more dramatic, of Cuba as a country making a revolution. Still, when many photographers, including those sympathetic to the revolution, visit our island, they tend to see us as enchanting, primitive beings who have achieved "revolution and partying," revolution and relaxation, at the same time. Cubans always seem to express themselves with their bodies and never with their intelligence. The reality is that any revolution is a rending experience.
Papp Jeno, a Hungarian photographer who visited Cuba in 1961, had a weakness for romantic, sensual images and exotic landscapes. Even though his book shows the modern side of Havana as well as the rural zones, cane fields, and modern industry, Papp still gets trapped by and ecstatic over romantic, elemental, and simplistic appearances. He insists on the typical and the exotic — from street vendors to crocodiles in the Zapata Marsh. And he films with such stylistic and technical backwardness that his style is at least twenty years old.
Lots more things exist in Cuba than any photographers have seen, even today. And many eyes have photographed what they've seen there. One of the best visual interpretations comes from a portfolio by Walker Evens (it appeared in The Crime of Cuba by Carlton Beals in 1933). Evans' eyes interpreted our street people's broken lives. He has a 1930s sociological vision, but his understanding of dynamic contrasts and his spontaneous composition rescues many of his photos from being mere visual documents. If most photographers, even the most creative ones, have not produced any more complex image of underdevelopment, it is because of their limited experience, little time spent there, and real limitations on their profundity. They almost always spend just a few days in a country so that they could hardly produce a complex vision. Photographers instinctively glue themselves to the superficial image, which they find in people and places. They have eyes full of preconceived ideas and a superficial understanding of each image's content. Although they constantly encounter objective reality, they easily fall prey to auto-suggestion so that they end up believing they can photograph creatively without understanding the cultural meaning behind gestures and situations.
The most important ingredient in photography always remains invisible: the photographer. This feeling, thinking, knowing and understanding being is what determines the quality of the image.
To interpret a community visually requires time and letting yourself be inundated by the milieu. Underdeveloped countries are themselves photographically backward, lacking a profound image of themselves. The people live alienated because others use them for political, economic or touristic ends — distorted even by those who aspire to present them faithfully. In our part of the world, around the Caribbean, we've known some exceptions; probably there are others. Underdevelopment also signals an isolated world, one with defective, always fragmentary, communication.
After five years in Venezuela (1955-61), Paolo Gasparini created a meaningful and coherent image of that country. He assimilated Strand's experience and applied it creatively.
In his sharp images, everything gets paralyzed in order to let us see — with that intense tranquility only possible in art — the terrible poverty and stubborn pride which convulsively surrounds our highly industrialized era. All Gasparini's images of Venezuela are shaped by his vision of underdevelopment. Even his landscapes convey the abandoned existence of people oppressed by nature's immense cruelty. The mountains are crushing. In the midst of those mountains — just as in the plains and in the jungle — people become insignificant but still remain dignified and persistent. Gasparini shows an image of three white houses against a background of dark mountains. It denounces all human stubbornness to acquire land and prosper in the midst of such a gigantic and rough natural environment: the black mountains, the white frames of the houses, the stones in the abyss.
Men and women and children rivet their attention on a photo until the repetition of gestures and situations releases for them the key to the photo's intention: people who are often disdained by humanity; children with their parasitic bellies who don't understand the scribbling of letters; youth who cannot find work and who stand around looking at the vermin, surrounded by their own children in the door of their own home. The underdeveloped world is also underutilized. The potential humanity within each individual gets lost and broken.
Gasparini built his vision upon residue: dirty, worm-eaten, broken, peeling wood; walls covered with wounds and bruises; children always playing with empty cans from imported products; the cold, abstract machinery of outsiders extracting petroleum; white, blonde women appearing in Pepsi-Cola posters covered with dust and dirt; ridiculous, armed military men; cemeteries surrounded by oil tanks.
Gasparini did not accept what he saw, the facades which other photographers had accepted as reality. He wasn't satisfied to pass by without stopping and to go around the things in the "background." He went in and stayed there. A lot of super-sophisticated people easily admire underdevelopment's facades, such as colonial architecture or rural life in Latin America. They love to see the integration of landscape and architecture, the rich and surprising textures of old decaying walls, the harmonious proportions of adobe huts and peasant shacks. That was the beauty in Leiter's photograph of an exotic, primitive hut with a fragile model posing behind the window. It's the only thing many photographers and architects have ever looked at — never the life inside. Gasparini went into these humble houses. He stayed in a lost village in Venezuela, Bobare, and he photographed interiors. He wrote,
But Gaspanni did go in, and he did photograph in the darkness. He captured the crumbling filth: the broken fireplace, the old suitcase abandoned from a trip to Caracas which in fact never took place, the treasures on a shelf — one old shoe, two empty cans, a leaking casserole and a bicycle seat.
"You have to go inside these houses, without being afraid of getting dirty as you touch those little children who are dirty because there isn't any water. You do it to understand these people a little better, their homes, their community; so as to know the landscape, with its dry thistles like wrinkled women with dry breasts, dry like people who only have skin, bones, and a burnt-out expression left, dry earth, skin wrinkled like "the texture of a wall." To understand all this a little better you have to approach it with more love, understanding and awareness; without prejudices or judgments that are too superficial and too hurriedly formed. We must go inside these homes and not stop outside at the facade. We must try to understand these people, talk to them, and not stay sitting in our cans pointing at them with a telephoto lens. Pity doesn't work."
Photographers often miss such a vision because they visit underdevelopment a little like tourists and stay there briefly. They want to convince themselves that life in the backward zones is not so terrible and that people there have compensations — compensations based on a harmony between people and nature, a satisfaction with manual labor, primitive culture's creative expression through work and dance. Because if those people are equal to us even though very different, we don't have to worry or have a bad conscience. All people are then equal — poor or rich, hungry or living in abundance. Just like philosophers, photographers imagine utopias.
Gasparini's rural images have been complemented by the work of Daniel Gonzalez. This Venezuelan photographer emphasizes the contradictory nature of modern Latin American cities. His photos are based on the surrealistic clash between grotesque, underdeveloped behavior and ruthless socio-economic change. He has selected the most suggestive and explosive images: the miserable shacks constructed in the hills around Caracas out of the city's cast-off things; boxes, posters, fragments of torn billboards showing an eye, a stupid smile, or lost words; a display window with a doll with a crutch, advertising crutches for children; a neon sign of a skull advertising a tailor shop.
In Cuba we have the penetrating vision of Luc Chessex, a Swiss photographer who has lived on this island for almost four years. His images, like those of Frank, don't try to show every aspect of a situation but rather a shadow which projects something — the corners, the eloquent detail. He has enriched our national image by adding complexity to that face. He's refuted the stereotyped vision of Cuba as a happy, playful paradise. Chessex has discovered the abstract, concentrated face of the Cuban when dancing. Until now the emphasis has almost exclusively been on the dramatic, sensual, and extroverted gestures of our rhythms. Chessex has photographed various dancing couples who look like they are having a conversation or meditating — abstracted from both time and external reality. His photos of Fidel discover that image spontaneously integrated into the community: country villages, walls, work centers.
Chessex has seen how imagination and reality are united; in Cuba, these are not opposed as they are in more developed and organized societies. The most anachronistic elements merge together, not artificially juxtaposed as in surrealism, but naturally. In the same store window, we may see a flag, an orthopedic girdle, a photo of Fidel, a shoe — nobody finds that incongruous. But Chessex caught it by surprise and revealed it. White mannequins modeling clothes for a population that has a high percentage of African blood become the image of a blonde woman surrounded by heads with thick, kinky black hair.
And Chessex sees how Cubans insistently consume everything and judge and talk with their glances. Here we depend mostly on our eyes to understand the world: we analyze others looking directly, face to face, and often when we're out on the street, we'll even turn our heads around to see what's going on. It's a primitive form of communication and our way of judging our compatriots. In other countries, people look at each other out of the corner of their eye. In various images, Chessex has captured the meaning of our way of looking: Cubans turning around to see what's going on, looking at the camera; two groups crossing the street where even the kids size each other up as they go by; people staring at something strange. He has surprised us, meditating or serious, whereas other photographers have just seen us dancing and smiling and shouting. Every creative photographer adds a facet to our cultural reality, and that new vision emerges as much from objective reality as it does from the lens' focus.
Mayito is the Cuban photographer who has insisted most on searching for a photographic language which is not illustrative, one which expresses. In his search he has moved past spontaneous imagery and into geometric composition; away from textures into expressionism. But he's a real artist. He shows us a pair of pleasure-loving Cubans timidly stepping into the water holding hands, and this is a good example of photographic psychology. Here, the Cuban, normally in full control of his or her vital space, seems to be defenseless while facing the ocean's hugeness. It's our small island confronting an image of universal vastness.
Different historical periods each have their own characteristics. To capture those moments in an image, anecdote, or account lets you intensify reality through revealing it. The moments become historical epiphanies. We have a mural-sized photo of Fidel giving two farmers a deed to a piece of land. Mayito shot it in the "Three Ton Bar" and it shows just how the Cuban revolution was in 1959. It was an epoch of transition, where agrarian reform existed alongside private property and capitalist advertising. In the foreground of Mayito's photo, people in Havana appear celebrating and having a good time; it's the year of our joy and liberation from dictatorship. Later will come the years of construction, sacrifice, work, and education. This image by Mayito is a visual epiphany of our year 1959, the year that the Cuban revolution triumphed.
Mayito shot Fidel and Jose Martí in a public gathering so that they looked like two faces more among the crowd. The faces looked like an integral part of Cuban life and an expression of our national spirit. Fidel and Martí in the arms of the people during a parade became the mundane expression of the best of Cuban history, behavior, intelligence, and creativity.
Photographic artists interested in capturing the real image of reality, its face, still lie just as much as the ones dedicated to advertising, fashion, or news. They all create a vision. Creative photographers modify the image and turn it around upon themselves. It's thus easier to say "a Cartier-Bresson" than "a photograph of Mexico," "a Eugene Smith" than "Africa," or "a Penn" than "a street in Lima."
The vision established through thousands of photos about, around, or thinking of the Third World can only be interpreted partaking of a cultural language. Otherwise, we will always be used by or trapped in a visual lie and through a concrete form of deception: the photograph. As Joyce thought, art tied to action and propaganda is impure. But culture is always impure, like people. We cannot talk about art by using a static, purely aesthetic conception of it. Impurity is necessary; art feeds on impurities.
Culture serves as an instrument for our human development; it's the language and image of our journey here in society. And in that journey, nothing is secure or static. It's a struggle in and with the entire complexity of the world. Art serves to sell things, dream to, meditate, understand the world and see it, masturbate to, hate, love and contemplate. And photography has the same protean nature as our convulsive, impure epoch — but it's also a dynamic epoch, facing the future, infinity, and the most profound aspects of human beings and their history. We live in an artificial world of values — culture — that is humanly created. If art means anything, it means awareness, an awareness that lets us ensnare our own life. And contemporary photography — infiltrated into almost all levels of our culture — perhaps offers us the best framework through which to examine our fluid consciousness. In the printed photo, even ideas are made flesh.
For a long time we've been discussing these issues among ourselves, trying to define art out from other cultural manifestations and trying to separate out its impurities.
It was stupid to try. All that should interest us is the language people use to function in the world and make sense out of their existence. Art is no more than a part of culture. It doesn't have defined borders. It does not have defined limits. It cannot exist isolated from the social dynamic that also includes politics, science, economy, journalism, sociology, psychology, and above all history. And it takes a position.
All that I have written here also comes out of a very specific point of view: in each of my words I have placed my camera on the side of the Cuban revolution. I write from the point of view of underdevelopment and its relation to the rest of the world and to contemporary history. I do not offer a criticism from a New York, London, Prague, Moscow, or Peking perspective but from that of Havana, and in the year 1965. This is our own era. My article demands that you understand us in terms of our need to liberate ourselves from capitalism's physical and psychological exploitation, to the point of our demanding aid from the socialist world and from all of humanity. And it is not just our problem. As Martíi put it, the world's equilibrium rests on us.
In our time the photographic image of underdevelopment represents a worldwide phenomenon: it exists in the visual and historical consciousness of the world. It is what we dream (a beautiful paradise in which to show off the latest fashions or to visit for romantic vacations, attentively served by a native in a luxury hotel). It is the expression of our fears and desires (social revolution, impatient peoples, raw materials, cruelty, abject poverty, justice, fierce resentment, ignorance, and aggressiveness). And it is also what people imagine they could be when they have ideals (brothers and sisters, our brothers and sisters, us, human beings).
Translator's note: In the essay, "Cuba Made Me So," Desnöes does a close re-reading of "The Photographic Image of Underdevelopment," updating it for the 80s. His point of departure is the increasing circulation of imagery from and about the Third World. He warns,
"The image only invites us, it does not commit us."
In "The Death System" he pays tribute to Susan Meiselas' photography and analyses how pictures of mutilated corpses elicit different readings in North America and Latin America. In "Will You Ever Shave Your Beard?" he discusses how U.S. television creates and manipulates icons that reduce any gap between fantasy and social awareness. These three original essays appear in Marshall Blonsky, ed., On Signs (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985). — JL.