Something odd happened the last full day I was in Cuba. The sky suddenly seemed brighter, colors were more vivid, and Havana seemed so vibrant. I felt kind of like Homer Simpson in the episode where he finds himself in a 3-dimensional world. It was utterly, truly surreal.
I attribute the transformation to a couple of conversations, one that had everything to do with visual perspective, and the other about how we look at conceptual situations. After several days of processing those discussions, my mind woke up in a way that I hope I’ll be able to continue developing. For now I want to focus on the visual realm, and I’ll discuss the second conversation in a subsequent post.
When we were in Cienfuegos, a bay city near the southern coast of Cuba, our National Geographic expert Massimo Bassano commented on the casual, haphazard (my words, not his) way that I take pictures. Massimo is a brilliant photographer, and we were fortunate to have access to that expertise in addition to his official role as Cuban cultural guru. The nature of our trip didn’t accommodate photo-taking workshops, but Massimo’s passion for visual storytelling shaped the way he approached our daily excursions.
He spent about 5 minutes showing me how to frame my shots and create perspective in the two-dimensional world of photography. As I’m reviewing my pictures from the trip, I can see an immediate change in quality, and now I am dying to take a photo workshop. I’m also going to need to invest in a better camera and remember to carry a backup battery because, at least so far, this attentive approach to photography requires more juice.
Fast-forward to that last day in Havana. Several days of looking through the viewer window on my camera had changed how I looked at the world more generally. I started noticing details that, while obvious in the past, seemed more fine-tuned. Shadows, for instance, felt like they were jumping out at me, and I was more aware of the distance between objects. My perspective had changed, and my surroundings were practically dancing with energy.
Two days later, I noticed a similar phenomenon as I walked through the Wynwood neighborhood in Miami. The sky was duller, but everything still felt so alive. I had decided to spend some time exploring Miami’s graffiti art before returning to Texas, and I set out for the Design District after a hotel concierge told me that I would find a lot more around there than in Wynwood. My research had pointed toward Wynwood, but I took her at her word.
The Design District turned out to be everything that I had dreaded–posh shops and restaurants targeted toward tourists with plenty of money to spend. Even the few murals lacked the humanity that I had hoped to see. I did stumble upon a nice little nook near the edge of the district (the motorcycle added a serendipitous touch), but that was nothing compared to what awaited me in Wynwood.
I wandered down a friendly street exchanging pleasantries with immigrants before heading toward the area where the murals were rumored to be.
My fascination with graffiti art traces back to childhood, but as seems to be the case just about everywhere these days, alas, outdoor walls are no longer primarily the canvases of resistance and protest movements.
Rather, they’re symbols of gentrification and upward mobility, displacing families and communities that have lived amongst creative graffiti for decades.
Wynwood is in that transitional phase. It’s not yet the Design District, but it will take a whole lot of effort for those who are in danger of losing their homes to fight back against gentrification. The Wynwood Walls, while beautiful and awe-inspiring with prominent street artist Shepard Fairey‘s work, have the potential to attract developers who might not care about the neighborhood’s families.
Artists and musicians are often caught in the crossfire of gentrification. I’m always conflicted because a part of me knows that artists profit from these initiatives, but then there’s always the question “at what cost?”
I know that some of you clicked on this blog hoping to read about Cuba, and you might be wondering why I’m talking about Miami instead. There’s a connection, but you’ll have to wait in order to find out how I see Cuba through the lens of what’s happening in the US.
The short answer as to why I started with Miami: I promised these two nice young women that I would post a picture of them on my blog. They were excited to see me taking pictures of the murals, and they’re part of the story of how young people are shaping our world.
When I talk about gentrification, I don’t want to disparage existing neighborhoods and the people who live there. I happen to love the diversity of our country, and the idealistic part of me wants to believe that it’s possible for us all to coexist (the realistic part of me isn’t so optimistic). Wynwood has a really cool vibe, especially compared to the Design District, and I hope that as this neighborhood moves forward, rent won’t skyrocket to the point where residents have to move elsewhere in order to make room for an endless row of coffee shops and art galleries.
Back to the topic of perspective, when I think about Miami and other urban centers in the US, I wonder what Havana would look like today if there had been a stronger US presence there over the past half-century. That’s one of the things I’ll have more to say about in future posts. But for now, I’ll end with a couple more photos of the murals. The one of Audrey Hepburn is for my new Cuban friend Zoe, our savvy, feisty tour guide whom you’ll hear more about soon enough.