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Walker Evans’s CUBA: A Portrait that Stands through Time

A review of Walker Evans Cuba book published by the J. Paul Getty Museum
One of the pages of the book.

In the spring of 1933, Walker Evans visited Cuba to take photos for a book on the island written by radical journalist Carleton Beals. He had received the assignment from the publisher J. B. Lippincott. It was during the  Great Depression (1929-1939), and Cuba was under the rule of strongman Gerardo Machado (whom the people would oust from power that year).

The selection of photos, put together by the J. Paul Getty Museum, with an essay by Andrei Codrescu and an introduction by Judith Keller, depicts the harsh realities Cubans were facing during the reign of Machado and amid the crisis brought by the Great Depression.

To put things in perspective, the Great Depression was also a dark time in the United States. During that time, Dorothea Lange took her famous “Migrant Mother” photo (1936). Life was not much better in the United States than in Cuba, America’s number 1 protégé at the time. Lange’s photo is considered by many to be the photo that best illustrates that stage in the history of America and the world.

However, Walker Evan’s work is something that transcends time and space. In what many view as the worst economic crisis in the United States since 1900, Evans captured a vision of Cuba that, away from outfits, black and white, and buildings that no longer exist, may seem very similar today to the eye of the regular Cuban.

Places like Plaza del Vapor (which was disgraced by the Castro government, destroyed, and turned into what today is known as Parque del Curita) bring resemblance to buildings like Edificio Balaguer, which still stands today behind the National Museum of Fine Arts.

Nevertheless, it was the despair Evans captured (which is no different from the despairs today’s Cubans go through) where the real Cubans struggled to get bread and essentials in endless lines, whereas others chose to sleep on benches because they had nowhere else to go, what makes his work so close to today’s Cuban reality.

And then, come Gerardo Machado. He was a tyrant and a brutal repressor. However, under his reign, he implemented many social programs. His government and his country relied on the US economy. Although Cuba had gained executive and government independence from Spain, it depended economically on trade with the United States. We Cubans are taught in history that the United States was taking advantage of us but any person with common sense would tell you that without US support and commerce, the nation’s economy would have collapsed after the war with Spain and until the late 1950s. And since Fidel Castro took over, we don’t know what would have happened.

When Machado’s doing was no longer convenient to America, they made him resign amidst nationwide protests. History teachers in Cuba will overlook that the United States indeed supported the overthrow of the Gerardo Machado regime.

But before that happened, Evans managed to capture the effects of the Great Depression on Cuba. If the United States, Cuba’s primary business partner and provider of goods and services, were struggling, what could anyone expect from a small island with very little to offer?

Cuba was indeed struggling, as mightily as it has been struggling over the past 60 years. There are many differences in clothes, type of industry, or social photos taken. However, many street photographers in Cuba, foreign and domestic, have been capturing a life that is not so different from what Evans showed in his work over 90 years ago.

Although for a time Cuba seemed a paradise worth visiting, and MANY worldwide known photographers have taken MAJESTIC photos of Cuba and Havana, this is just a mere portrait of a country’s decay. While many of them see their work as “artistic”, they are instead acting as documentarists of whatever is happening on the island during their respective visits.

Unlike many people who criticize them and call them out for “preying on a country’s decay”, we should see them as ambassadors who do just what Walker Evans did in 1933. And to be honest, the Cuban people need those “vultures” to tell their reality and show the world what Cuba is really about.

Any Cuban that comes across Walker Evans Cuba will feel a chill going down their spine. Depending on what side of politics you are on, you will either only see some of the struggles Cubans faced before 1959 or some of the Great Depression struggles reflected in today’s Cubans’ fight for survival.

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