Photographer Tria Giovan sometimes wonders where the children in her portraits are today. She photographed them in Cuba in the 1990s. She's heard a handful of them have made it to Europe — Spain, Germany — though she doesn't know how. Passports would have been an issue. Money presented its own problems. At the time, Cuba was a place where very little seemed possible.
Giovan, then a young photographer based in New York City, started what would be a thorough and comprehensive documentation of a country in the throes of severe economic depression. In 1989, Cuba began to unravel amid fraying financial and diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union. When the USSR dissolved in 1991, Cuba was left without the safety net of trade agreements that bound it to other socialist countries. The result was disastrous for the island. That time became known as the "Special Period."
But Giovan wasn't there for the politics. She traveled to Cuba as an objective observer, fascinated by a place that was difficult to get to and relatively undeveloped. What started as one trip facilitated by the Center for Cuban Studies turned into a series of monthlong sojourns taken over the course of six years. In that time, Giovan took around 25,000 photographs, 100 of which made it into the pages of Cuba: The Elusive Island, her 1996 book published by Harry N. Abrams. Until recently, many of the other images sat in storage, still in negative form. Giovan has smartly scanned the whole lot, in a digital catalog dubbed "The Cuba Archive." A book of 200 of these images is set to be published by spring of 2018.
Twenty-six years after Giovan began her documentation, a new Cuba has emerged. Though not without difficulty, the country has since come to support private enterprise and open itself up to foreign investment. In 2014, Cuba's relationship with the United States, frozen since the Cold War, began to thaw. Barack Obama recently became the first sitting US president to visit Cuba in 88 years. The Rolling Stones, too, have just made history, playing their first show on the island. In the middle of the set, Mick Jagger, in magenta satin, said in Spanish to a massive crowd, "It was difficult to hear our music in Cuba before, but here we are, playing for you guys now."
I talked to Giovan about her experience with the old Cuba, from smuggling aspirin to becoming a de facto carrier pigeon between two countries, the resourcefulness of Cuban women, and what might happen now that Cuba has opened itself to the world.
Jenny Bahn: What prompted you to start the series back in 1990?
Tria Giovan: I was always a bit of an adventurous traveler. I liked the idea of going somewhere where not everyone could go that easily. I think it was also because I had grown up in the Caribbean — in the Virgin Islands. As beautiful and lovely as that is, it also had become very developed, which was difficult to see happen over the course of a young person's lifetime. One of my impulses was to find a place that hadn't had that happen and hadn't been homogenized by development. Certainly, in that respect, I found that in Cuba.
JB: With relations opening up between the US and Cuba, do you feel that sort of homogenization is bound to happen there?
TG: I think that there's a very strong cultural identity in Cuba, a strong sense of a need for preservation that will maintain the integrity of the culture and the landscape to a certain degree. There's been development going on there since Cuba started opening up to foreign investment outside of the US, obviously. A lot has changed, and, with the new policies with the US, Cuba will certainly continue to change, probably at a more accelerated pace.