“This is your country, and no regime can take it from you”

The photographer’s work was the pretext that Havana used to suspend negotiations with the European Union

Patrimonio de la Humanidad, el cementerio de Colón en La Habana cuenta con más de 500 mausoleos, capillas y bóvedas familiares. (Marius Jovaiša)
A World Heritage site, the Colón (Columbus) Cemetery in Havana has more than 500 mausoleums, chapels and family vaults. (Photo: Marius Jovaisa)

Marius Jovaiša is a Lithuanian photographer, 41, who has spent much of the last five years taking photos of Cuba from a perspective never before seen: from above. He started the project in 2010 thinking that, being a foreign artist far removed from politics, it would be quite easy to get permission to take aerial photos. However he quickly realized that he would have to navigate against an extremely slow bureaucracy, invest a great deal of resources, be patient, and understand that the freedom to do things is very limited on the island.

Unseen Cuba, a collection of more than 300 ariel photos of the island, taken from an ultralight 300 feet above the surface of the earth, was published in 2014. The exhibition of the images in Washington and Brussels caused problems with the Cuban authorities, who came to use his work as a pretext to suspend their dialogue with the European Union last November.

Question: Why did you decide to write a book about Cuba?

Answer: After the publication of my book of ariel photos of Lithuania, I realized that I was doing something that I enjoy, that appealed to the public, and that could also be a profitable project. With this new project I could combine my passion for photography with the adrenaline that one feels when flying in an apparatus that is open as an ultralight. It was like I was flying in a chair and, at the same, time taking incredible photos.

First I did  Unseen Belize to see if the model would work in a foreign country and then I thought about Cuba, because there had not been a work of this kind in the country, and also because the island and Lithuania share a piece of history through the Soviet influence. Cuba was like a secret country and it would be a great challenge for me to develop the project. I love challenges.

Q. Do you expect to hold an exhibition in Havana next?

A. I would love that. There were already two exhibitions last year, one in the Lithuanian embassy in Washington and another with the support of the European Union in Brussels. Both caused problems with the Cuban authorities. Unfortunately, my work found itself in the middle of a political problem. Last May, our ambassador in Washington invited to the exhibition several Cuban-American members of Congress, who made very strong political statements, and the Cuban diplomatic mission reported what happened to Havana

The person responsible for Latin America at the European Union is Lithuanian and she invited me to show my work. Cuba and the European Union had begun their rounds of talks, and she thought the show would be an opportunity to educate the diplomatic community about the culture of the country.

Someone in the embassy in Brussels realized that it was the same exhibition that had created so much conflict in Washington and asked that it be canceled, but the European union refused. The Cubans boycotted the exposition, as did other Latin American ambassadors, and at the same time they suspended the talks. Many said that my exhibition was just an excuse for the cancellation and not the main reason, but that is what happened.

Q. What do Cuban authorities think of your book?

A. I sent it to them last November. I hadalready reported by telephone that on page 77 there is a picture of a lighthouse with what appears to be a soldier patrolling, from above. Although you cannot see the soldier very well, in Cuba there are regulations that prohibit photographing the military.

I was also told that there is a picture of my children with some Cuban children that they did not much appreciate. They said: “We do not want to show our children to the world in this way, they appear to be poor little savages. I am still waiting for a global response, but if there is nothing that would harm my artistic work, I am willing to publish the book in Spanish for sale in Cuba.

Q. Who were the first people you met with in Havana?

A. I met primarily with Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One of the entry points for me was the  Antonio Núñez Foundation for Nature and Humanity. Its director, Liliana Nunez Velis, fell in love with my project and took me, literally, by the hand to the Ministry of Culture. She wrote a letter of recommendation on behalf of the Foundation saying that my project presented an opportunity to promote Cuban culture in other countries through its geography and landscape.

Then, in my meetings with the Department of International Relations within the Ministry of Culture, I worked with the department director, Pedro Monzón Barata. I was always talking with officials from each ministry separately, but I realized that each of them was coordinating everything with the military. The Government also designated me as a trading company of the Ministry of Culture to coordinate the initiative,  Paradiso. Through them, money was sent from Lithuania to Cuba to develop the project.

Q. At any point do you think that it would be better to abandon the project?

A: I thought of quitting many times because the bureaucracy did not do its work and delayed decisions, it was exhausting. Something would be agreed on in the meetings, and afterwards it wouldn’t happen. On my first visit to Havana I managed to open doors and even to fly, and I committed myself totally to the project and believe that it would be possible possible to do it. On this first trip I received many compliments, everyone told me, “Relax don’t worry.”

I come from a country that belongs to the Soviet Union, I knew some things would be achieved through under the table negotiations, sidestepping the rules a little bit. I knew I would find some way to navigate through the labyrinth of regulations. Then when I felt like giving up the project, I thought about the flight that I managed on my first trip. Perhaps if I hadn’t taken this flight I would have lost interest in the project.

Q. Do the Cuban authorities feel threatened by your book?

A. I don’t think so, not at all. The problem is they expected it to be done much more slowly, and that the captions on the photos would be written by the Cuban historian and geographer assigned to the project. But they weren’t doing the work and I went ahead.

Q. In April 2014, you received a visit from the Interior Ministry. The authorities claimed that they were not aware of the project and had received complaints that “a foreign spy” was taking aerial photos of Cuba. What did they ask you in the interrogation?

A. It wasn’t an interrogation as such. They asked me several questions about the work I was doing. I do not think it was an order from above. It was rather the local police who were trying to show their spirit of initiative and were doing their job.

Q. Why initially could you not take pictures of the cities?

A. I thought it was for security reasons, but they never explained it to me. I always hoped they would let me take photos of cities, though perhaps I would have to do it in a military plane and not in my ultralight, but that was not the case. I was very surprised when they let me do it, because in other places it is not allowed.

Q. How much did the project cost?

A. The whole process – travel, events, presentations, production of the book, et cetera – has cost close to $1 million. I still haven’t finished the process, there’s a lot to be done in terms of promotion and sales, so the costs continue to rise

Q. What impressed you about Cuba?

A. When I started to visit places outside Havana – Trinidad, Santiago and so on – I realized how big and long Cuba is. The roads were very narrow and the transportation very limited. I realized it would be a complicated job.

Marius Jovaisa in in his ultralight (Marius Jovaisa)
Marius Jovaisa in in his ultralight (Marius Jovaisa)

I had a lot of contact with Cuban artists. Before the project I organized a series of seminars and presentations about my work and my experience with photography. The island’s photographers are very talented, expressing in their work, in a way, the same pain and the same sensitivity that existed in Lithuania in Communist times.

The Cuban people are strong. Their feel love for their homeland. It is very difficult to live in Cuba without access to simple things, without a free market, unable to express their creativity. It reminded me a lot of Soviet times in Lithuania.

I also met many Cubans outside the island, dreaming of the day when they could return. I stayed in B&Bs in private homes, I visited with Cubans who welcomed me like a member of their families. My kids played with their Cuban friends. Cubans are a very welcoming, they give you a unique friendship. They don’t see you as a commercial object. I was always asked about my family and not about my professional life. They improvise a lot, they have an incredible creativity.

Q. What do you want to accomplish with your book?

A. One effect that this book will have is to awaken a certain national pride in Cubans. It’s like saying: this is yours, this is your country, it was created before any revolution and political system, and it will also survive long into the future. No regime, whatever it might be, can take it from you.

These pictures evoke a sense of belonging to a single Cuba for Cubans living both inside and outside the island. I know it will be very difficult for my book to be in the homes of every Cuban on the island, but my hope is that Cuban-Americans can buy the book and share with their families inside Cuba.

For those who are not Cuban, I hope my book will serve to show the beauty of the country. Cuba is a place that is recognized throughout the entire world and I hope that this book will allow many people to see Cuba from a new perspective.

‘Unseen Cuba’ presented in Miami on Friday, January 23, 7:30 pm, at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. (305) 448-9599

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