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Photography in the Cuban Revolution

Photography in the Cuban Revolution

by Ricardo Alberto Pérez

Those of us who were born a few years after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution have powerful reference points for the most important events during those early years thanks to the leading role of photography, which became memories, and the heart and soul of never-to-be-repeated moments. Thanks to this art form, those moments became eternal and managed to work their way right around the globe and especially to the present, thereby securing safe passage into the future.

The foremost leaders of the nascent Revolution were very interesting subjects for photographers because they identified in them the highest point of heroism. There is no doubt that the three most photographed leaders were Fidel Castro, Ernesto Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. What always stood out in the photographs were the smiles, the steadfastness and the undeniable power of seduction of these three men. Sometimes they were caught during their free time, taking part in a variety of activities such as fishing, smoking a cigar or playing a legendary golf game.

Every one of these photos was marked by the overwhelming presence of profound mass jubilation, both when coming into contact with the Revolution’s chief leaders and when the people were involved in working at the many tasks required for the major job of building a new society. An unusual detail that is seen to repeat in many of them is how the emotions of the crowds are treated and the extraordinary energy that emanates from so many anonymous faces, all becoming part of the collective memory thanks to the clear-headed talents of those undeniable masters of photojournalism.

Among the most outstanding photographers were Alberto Korda, Ernesto Fernández, José Agraz, Osvaldo Salas, Raúl Corrales, and the peasant Perfecto Romero, who as member of Column 8 under Che Guevara had served as a war correspondent. Most of them had had prior photographic experience. In 1959 their lenses fell captive to the transformative capabilities of the Revolution. They instilled a new interpretation of the photographer’s sense of responsibility and commitment. This process certainly encapsulated the words of a well-known saying: a picture says more than a thousand words.

Most of the work of this group of photographers took place under the aegis of the new press organizations accompanying the birth of the Revolution, particularly, the newly created newspaper Revolución and magazines Verde Olivo and INRA, which represented the recently-created Institute for Agrarian Reform, and the already existing Bohemia magazine, which, from January to February of 1959 printed a special edition in three parts called Bohemia de la Libertad [Bohemia in Freedom]. This weekly magazine  published photos on the following subjects: the triumph of the people and the Rebel Army, the Caravan of Freedom’s triumphal march throughout the Island, and an account of the crimes committed by the overthrown dictatorship and the public trials held for Batista’s henchmen.

I am convinced that Cuban epic photography takes place in that territory somewhere between elegy and drama. On the one hand, we have the people, feeling victorious and expressing it very naturally, positioned among many exploits. On the other hand, we have the bourgeoisie and imperialism, defined as the enemies of popular sentiment, promoting terrorism and the war that ended up taking many Cuban lives and creating dramatic scenarios such as the explosions on the La Coubre freighter and the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Cuban photographers were present at both locations, leaving their testimony for history.

The photojournalism of Ernesto Fernández at the battle at the Bay of Pigs/Playa Girón during the enemy invasion is simply outstanding. And when the sabotage unleashed on La Coubre is dealt with, it is always accompanied by the extraordinary photos taken by José Agraz, who, putting his own life at risk, remained at the site of the crime and was hurled several meters by the force of the second explosion.

As for Alberto Korda, undoubtedly the most media published of these photographers, besides collaborating with the newspaper Revolución, he was also Fidel Castro’s personal photographer on many of his historic trips abroad from 1959 to 1969. The photo that immortalized Korda, however, is the one he took of Che Guevara on March 5, 1960 at the state funeral in honor of the victims of La Coubre. This picture has come to be known the world over as Guerrillero Heroico. Besides being the most reproduced photograph in history, it is considered one of the ten most important portraits taken in the history of photography.

Other photos which need to be mentioned here are some of the ones taken by Raúl Corrales (also Fidel’s personal photographer from 1950-1961), such as, El sueño, La pesadilla, Crisis de Octubre, Sombreritos, Hemingway y Fidel, Anselmo Hernández, el viejo They are all shots serving as verification of the splendid humanistic nature of these kinds of images.

Photography associated with the Cuban Revolution is a legend and a reality. Over the years, it has proved to be a source of inspiration for other artistic media, especially the movies and literature. Photography goes much further than being a testimony—despite the passage of time, it remains completely valid, an illustration of the multiple values it projects.