After the Obama administration began publicly normalizing relations with Cuba in 2015, Molly Mandell set out to spend some time in the previously difficult-to-access country. These trips to Cuba would make up the better part of three years. Together with James Burke, the two traveled throughout the country, developing relationships that would offer them deeply personal glimpses into the lives of Cuban citizens. Documenting this in their book, Made in Cuba, they dive into the country’s significant DIY culture: from artists who employ recycled materials to publishers making books entirely by hand, collectors restoring antique furniture with limited supplies, and designers circulating independent magazines with only a USB distribution network. For their project, they met more than 30 creative professionals, makers, and entrepreneurs. The book aims to tell their story. Larger than the sum of its parts, Made in Cuba serves as a sort of time capsule, both of the country as well as of Molly’s life. Her images speak of a deep interest in human beings and an immediate urge to share that with the larger public. Here, Molly talks to us about her time in Cuba, finding people whose story she felt compelled to share, and her future publishing plans.
You’re a successful writer and formerly an editor at the lifestyle magazine Kinfolk, what role does photography play in your life?
I obviously love the written word, but there are a few things that I can say I’m genuinely passionate about. Photography, like food, knows no language. To me, what you can share with other people, without barriers, is the essence of life. I really appreciate that an image can tell a story on its own. It’s also this kind of living history, of both my life and what is captured in the shot. When I go back through my photography, I can see what mattered to me, how I viewed the world, in a particular moment.
Where does your interest in Cuba come from? And how did you come up with the idea of for your book “Made in Cuba”?
Cuba is this island 90 miles south of Florida that I realized I knew virtually nothing about. I’m interested in how mythologies are perpetuated by the media, and this place seemed to be one that was either built up as some sort of paradise or completely ripped apart. The stories were so polarizing, and I was intrigued by what existed in the middle. This book is the product of both my work and that of photographer and writer James Burke, who at the time of my first visit was working on an organic farm in Austin, Texas. We were both interested in sustainability, and I had gone to study how Cuba coped with a lack of pesticides and modern farming machinery. James joined me, but what we found went far beyond agriculture. There was this incredible DIY (do-it-yourself) culture that seemed to permeate everything—it wasn’t unique to social strata, economic standing, age, race or geography (DIY solutions are just as prevalent in Havana as in far-off small towns). We’re talking everyone from farmers to video game designers. The DIY mentality was a lens through which to explore life in Cuba in a new, but very broad, way.
How did you go about finding the people and stories you wanted to tell?
Really, it boils down to a lot of time spent in Cuba. Our network continuously grew, and as it did, we became privy to more and more incredible entrepreneurs, makers and creative professionals. James and I have one particularly great friend and mentor, Conner Gorry, who runs an English-language bookstore and community project called Cuba Libro. She is from the United States but has lived in Cuba since 2002 and is a go-between for all of these different people in Havana. Overall, it’s extremely hard to prepare before heading into a project like this one. Part of the reason we made this book is that these stories are often not told—but that means a lot of on-the-ground research. If we did find someone online beforehand, email contact typically didn’t prove fruitful. We frequently showed up on people’s doorsteps to ask them to be a part of the book. Between 2015, when we started this endeavor, and this past year, more independent magazines and media outlets have also cropped up throughout the country, which in certain instances helped us to either find people or simply come up with ideas.
The subtitle of the book reads, “Stories of resilience, self-reliance, and creativity”. Could you explain where this comes from?
The aforementioned DIY culture really highlights how integral these characteristics are to Cuban people. The country relied heavily on the Soviet Union after the United States implemented its trade, financial and economic embargo and when the Iron Curtain fell, Cuba lost 85% of its aid and trade nearly overnight. That’s drastic. I think Conner Gorry, who I mentioned above, writes it best in an essay that appears in the book: “This was the dark decade after the Soviet bloc imploded, when the nation sustained daily blackouts, sugar water was considered a snack and raising a pig in your tub or chickens on your balcony guaranteed some protein for your family. Despite these privations, Cubans kept on stepping. Kept on making vaccines and babies. Kept on dancing. Kept on providing healthcare and education. Kept on winning at sports. How in the hell were they able to?!” The ingenuity is, to us, beyond impressive.
Coming from the United States, how does this Cuban mentality compare to that of the place you grew up?
Increasingly, it seems that everything is disposable; things aren’t made to last. This isn’t limited to the United States, but I see it most there. The last place that I lived in the U.S. was Texas, and the “bigger is better” mentality isn’t always a stereotype. It’s crazy to see these big-box stores that sell everything imaginable, including the totally unnecessary, after being in Cuba. In today’s world, it’s really special to find a place where repurposing and reusing are so valued. The culture in Cuba has made me a lot more conscious of how I interact with my own belongings. As we become more reliant on our smartphones and computers, I think we’re also forgetting how to do things manually. As you’ll hear from many of the people featured in our book, it is so rewarding to do something by hand or to at least have that know-how. Additionally, it means there is a lot more people-to-people interaction. That is one of the first things we noticed about Cuba: how comfortable people are asking for help and talking to strangers. Without being able to constantly turn to the internet for solutions, people have to rely on one another, which creates a really strong sense of community. In free time, nearly everyone can be found chatting with neighbors, friends or family. That may seem normal upon reading, but it contrasts some of my experiences in the United States and elsewhere, when, for example, I go to a restaurant and the whole table is surfing social media.
The romanticized view of Cuba as a country full of perfectly maintained ’57 Chevrolets and technicolor Spanish colonial houses is as inaccurate as it is widespread. How far does “Made in Cuba” go in debunking this myth?
We didn’t set out to debunk this myth per se, but to tell other stories that, in our opinion, are more representative of the country and the people who live there. We’ve read and looked at a lot of articles and books about Cuba and found so few, even from some of our most trusted sources, that go beyond the stereotypes. By nature of concentrating on people and their stories, we weren’t in refurbished classic American cars (those are primarily limited to tourists). We may have featured someone who lives in a colorful, colonial-style house, but the house, of course, wasn’t the focus of our imagery or text. Though everyone comes with their biases, we spoke with a lot of people who live in Cuba about how to avoid the typical clichés and made a concerted effort to do so. We also tried to assemble a group of people from a wide variety of backgrounds to give a more well-rounded glimpse into the culture. We wished we could have explored the country’s eastern provinces more (we made it as far as Sancti Spíritus). Luckily, we were able to include people who hail from that part of Cuba, which allowed us to cover the region without actually traveling there.
Which is your favorite story or character featured in the book? And why?
Oh man. It’s impossible to pick a favorite. El Negro is up there in part because he embodies the spirit of the book so purely. He built his house with his own two hands and lives almost entirely from his land (he, for example, is an expert when it comes to medicinal plants and has helped cure everything from the flu to his wife’s asthma with what he grows on his farm). We also love the people who you might never associate with this kind of resourcefulness elsewhere: a lighting producer that designs lamps not dissimilar in style to those in Scandinavia or Japan? An internationally-known artist? A magazine’s creative director? I, for one, wouldn’t have imagined those people to be experts in repurposing and recycling, but they are and in exceptional ways.
What role did the Leica Sofort play during your work in Cuba?
We shot almost the entirety of Made in Cuba on our Leica M6, but the Leica Sofort was an essential component in our production process. Throughout our time working in Cuba, James and I heard so many stories of journalists and photographers coming to the island, only never to be heard from again. Granted, it’s difficult to send photos to people without physically going back. As of right now, the average Cuban doesn’t have regular access to the internet and often, any connection is less than great for loading and downloading photos. We, however, don’t think that’s a great excuse. We found most people to be incredibly open. They let us into their lives in very personal ways and gave us a lot of time to photograph them and their work. But of course, they want to see the photos that they’re in! As such, we started bringing an instant camera with us. The Sofort allowed us to give both people featured in the book and their communities something to see and to keep, right away.
How was the experience of shooting with the Sofort? And how did the people you photographed react?
Shooting with the Sofort was often the highlight of our day. When we pulled the camera out, people didn’t expect an instant photograph. The pure joy—from children, adults, the elderly—when the film appeared and developed was contagious. We had grown men fighting over who got to take home a said photo. Instant photography was either something that people hadn’t seen in years or a technology that they had never been exposed to (someone once exclaimed, “It’s like something from the future!”). The experience also could be much more profound. We spent New Year’s Eve in Ciudad Nuclear, a sort of half-completed city that was built to house personnel and families for the nearby nuclear power plant project. We were at the Soviet-inspired apartment blocks, where our friend’s family lives, taking Sofort photos after the midnight celebrations. When we were wrapping up, a woman approached us and nervously asked if we could come up to her apartment to take a picture. We took a photo of her and her mother—what we learned was their first together in 30 years and would likely be the last—her mother was in poor health and, according to her, unlikely to live much longer. Neighbors then ushered us into their homes for family photos. We left with our hands full of beers and cake that everyone insisted we bring home in exchange for what they told us were invaluable images. Cameras—or any kind of printing services for photos—are either overly expensive or very hard to come by in the country, especially in rural parts like this one.
When will the book be published? And how can people get hold of a copy?
The book is available from September 25th (thanks of course to our fantastic publisher Luster). It will be available in select bookstores and for pre-sale on cuba-made.com.We’ve set up a special 20% discount for readers here, so be sure to type in MICxLeica at checkout.
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just wrapped up editing and art directing another book The Eye for Kinfolk’s founder Nathan Williams. It’s 450 pages filled with some of the most talented creative directors, past and present, in a wide range of fields from fashion to publishing and film (think Fabien Baron, Melina Matsoukas, Dev Hynes, Grace Coddington, and Dries Van Noten). The book, which features black-and-white photography only, publishes this October. James and I are also working on a very exciting magazine project, though I’m not at liberty to share details about it quite yet. In the meantime, we’re planning our book launch in Havana this fall, so keep an eye out for details!
What advice would you offer to anyone planning a photography trip to Cuba?
Avoid the stereotypes—there is so much beauty beyond classic cars, crumbling buildings and campesinos smoking cigars. Habana Vieja has some gems, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Even if you aren’t able to travel beyond Havana, there are so many interesting places outside of the city center. Try to spend a good chunk of time when you go. It takes some acclimating to really understand the lay of the land, and the pace of life in Cuba means you’ll likely have to go a little bit slower than you’re used to. This last piece of advice may be true anywhere, but it is the most important: get to know people. They will open doors that aren’t available to the average visitor. The infrastructure in Cuba is such that it can be extremely easy to stay on what we call the “tourist circuit,” but befriending locals will help you to discover neighborhoods and towns that give a more genuine sense of the country and its values. Our book wouldn’t be possible without an extensive network and as a bonus, we’ve truly made some of our closest friends in the process!