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Vacío: A Cuban Photo Essay

Vacío: A Cuban Photo Essay

Vacío, Spanish for “empty,” is an exploration of the interaction between the culture and infrastructure of Cuba in the months leading up to the lifting of the U.S. embargo. It was inspired by the juxtaposition of vibrancy and desolation in a nation seemingly left untouched as it began to prepare for what some considered would be a landmark shift in the way the country had operated for over half a century. Others insist the Cuban people are resilient and always have been, and that the improvement of their relationship with the American government would bring in more revenue but not alter daily life. These photos were taken from May to June 2015. The American embassy reopened in August after 54 years of closure.

Hover over images for captions.

A common sight in Cuba.  Businesses seem to open and close infrequently.  State-supplied goods are in irregular supply.  One can go to a restaurant one night and have a dish, and the next night it might be unavailable along with your second and third choices.  Two staples (for me) were impossible to find my last week in the country--WiFi cards and beer.

A common sight in Cuba.  Businesses seem to open and close infrequently.  State-supplied goods are in irregular supply.  One can go to a restaurant one night and have a dish, and the next night it might be unavailable along with your second and third choices.  Two staples (for me) were impossible to find my last week in the country--WiFi cards and beer.

Buildings are painted the most beautiful, vibrant shades that embody the spirit of the Caribbean.  Because cellphones haven't reached the same extent of popularity in Cuba as in the majority of the world, payphones are an important way to communicate. 

Buildings are painted the most beautiful, vibrant shades that embody the spirit of the Caribbean.  Because cellphones haven't reached the same extent of popularity in Cuba as in the majority of the world, payphones are an important way to communicate. 

The communist Cuban government supplies ration cards to Cuban citizens.  In speaking with locals, I learned that the cards are good for the basics.  They provide the necessities to survive, though not quite enough.  This store provided eggs to the neighborhood.  Perhaps fittingly, la caridad translates to "the charity." 

The communist Cuban government supplies ration cards to Cuban citizens.  In speaking with locals, I learned that the cards are good for the basics.  They provide the necessities to survive, though not quite enough.  This store provided eggs to the neighborhood.  Perhaps fittingly, la caridad translates to "the charity." 

I was walking around Habana Vieja one afternoon shooting and came across this bus on a vacant street close to the Malecón. There was no driver in sight and it didn't even look like it was an actual bus stop, but there was a woman sitting inside with her husband waiting. This seemed to be a recurring theme in Cuba--everyone was waiting. Waiting for something to happen. Waiting for nothing to happen. Just waiting. You'd see entire neighborhoods in the streets hanging out, smoking cigars, and drinking rum. The energy was so high and yet no one seemed particularly rushed. It's a completely different feeling than you would get in a Western city. The Cuban people seem to know how to make the best of life and enjoy the few things they have. It makes you wonder why we kill ourselves to get things. To buy stuff no one needs. Life is about more than what you own, and Cubans seem to have long understood this.

I was walking around Habana Vieja one afternoon shooting and came across this bus on a vacant street close to the Malecón. There was no driver in sight and it didn't even look like it was an actual bus stop, but there was a woman sitting inside with her husband waiting. This seemed to be a recurring theme in Cuba--everyone was waiting. Waiting for something to happen. Waiting for nothing to happen. Just waiting. You'd see entire neighborhoods in the streets hanging out, smoking cigars, and drinking rum. The energy was so high and yet no one seemed particularly rushed. It's a completely different feeling than you would get in a Western city. The Cuban people seem to know how to make the best of life and enjoy the few things they have. It makes you wonder why we kill ourselves to get things. To buy stuff no one needs. Life is about more than what you own, and Cubans seem to have long understood this.

You never know what you'll find around a corner in Havana.  Apartment corridors provide a hidden insight into local life.  As I walked into this building I was met with the most beautiful line of light from the sky that filled the interior with a soft afternoon glow. 

You never know what you'll find around a corner in Havana.  Apartment corridors provide a hidden insight into local life.  As I walked into this building I was met with the most beautiful line of light from the sky that filled the interior with a soft afternoon glow. 

While there's a unique Cuban identity formed from such isolation, you still see signs of the Western world.  Cubans as a people are highly educated because schooling is entirely free.  I found they were fully up-to-date on current events around the globe and eager to tell you what they thought.

While there's a unique Cuban identity formed from such isolation, you still see signs of the Western world.  Cubans as a people are highly educated because schooling is entirely free.  I found they were fully up-to-date on current events around the globe and eager to tell you what they thought.

Another glimpse into life, you can see the decay of infrastructure throughout the city everywhere you look.  For decades Cubans weren't allowed to buy or sell homes.  After all, how can one sell what no one owns?  Rather than "for sale" signs, it was common to see cardboard signs reading se permuta--essentially "home for swap." The only way to obtain a new house was to find someone willing to trade theirs of roughly equal value.  More recently President Raúl Castro has began to relax the market allowing locals to buy and sell their houses, albeit within a nascent, unstable market where the rules are still being worked out and much of the money flows under the table.

Another glimpse into life, you can see the decay of infrastructure throughout the city everywhere you look.  For decades Cubans weren't allowed to buy or sell homes.  After all, how can one sell what no one owns?  Rather than "for sale" signs, it was common to see cardboard signs reading se permuta--essentially "home for swap." The only way to obtain a new house was to find someone willing to trade theirs of roughly equal value.  More recently President Raúl Castro has began to relax the market allowing locals to buy and sell their houses, albeit within a nascent, unstable market where the rules are still being worked out and much of the money flows under the table.

It's hard to tell if a building is being repaired or completely abandoned.  Because they have little to go around, locals must make the best of what they have by repairing and reusing what exists.

It's hard to tell if a building is being repaired or completely abandoned.  Because they have little to go around, locals must make the best of what they have by repairing and reusing what exists.

A boy plays a pickup game of soccer on the streets of Habana Vieja.  While I would see people playing soccer regularly, baseball is Cuba's national sport.  Their love for the game is clear the moment you get close to a park.

A boy plays a pickup game of soccer on the streets of Habana Vieja.  While I would see people playing soccer regularly, baseball is Cuba's national sport.  Their love for the game is clear the moment you get close to a park.

A group of young guys hang out on a Saturday afternoon.  Turns out the daily aspects of life are largely universal. 

A group of young guys hang out on a Saturday afternoon.  Turns out the daily aspects of life are largely universal. 

Discrimination and Safety in Cuba

Discrimination and Safety in Cuba

Guide | Magnetic Island

Guide | Magnetic Island