Witness / Demonstrate
People can speak with a unified collective voice when they gather in public to bear witness and/or demonstrate in response to events. This photo-documentary project examines two separate but related group public responses, an impromptu public gathering in Cienfuegos, Cuba, and a planned demonstration in Little Havana, Miami, Florida. The event in Cuba, in March of 2015 was a response to a family who was evicted from their house by the government. The event in Miami in December of 2016 was a response to the death of Fidel Castro and the long arc of Fidel’s history and his impact on the Cuban exile community. The ways in which these public responses played out reflect the many differences between life in Cuba and the United States and the history between the two countries.
Witness: Cienfuegos, Cuba
During an independent photography trip to Cuba in early 2015, I spent a few days in Cienfuegos, a provincial capital on the southern coast of the country, approximately 160 miles from Havana. One day while I was near the central plaza I heard a commotion, walked back to the plaza, observed and photographed what was happening.
I saw that there was a woman who appeared distressed sitting with her family in the large bandstand in Jose Marti Plaza – a plaza surrounded by historic and picturesque buildings in central Cienfuegos. There were numerous police and military personnel who appeared to be keeping the crowd that had gathered away from the bandstand. Periodically someone who looked official would go up onto the bandstand to talk with the family. I asked someone who spoke English what was going on and he explained that the woman was upset about being evicted from her house by the government. I imagined this would be distressing given the history of strict property control by the government.
As I was photographing I noticed several uniformed military and police watching me. While some looked directly at me, none of them approached me or told me photography was prohibited, so I continued taking pictures. Over time it appeared that the woman and her family were convinced to leave the bandstand and were escorted into a nearby government building. As they left the bandstand, I noticed the crowd surround the woman, her family and the officials and move en masse with them towards the government building. After they entered the building the crowd lingered just outside. Some time passed without the woman or her family reappearing, and the crowd dispersed. The crowd had gathered, witnessed, and dispersed. No signs, no speeches, no media.
Demonstrate: Little Havana, Miami, Florida
I was in Miami the week after Fidel Castro died (Nov. 25, 2016). After hearing the news, crowds of Cuban Americans gathered spontaneously in Miami’s little Havana district, dancing and celebrating. Five days later, a large rally was held as a more formal response by the Cuban exile community. I spent that day and evening at the rally, documenting the event.
The crowd attending the rally were mostly older generation Cuban-Americans. Many of them had been personally affected by the Cuban Revolution. At the same time the crowd expressed their unhappiness and bereavement about what had transpired in the many decades after Fidel’s rise, there was also a feeling of Cuban pride, love for the homeland.
The rally was heavily covered by media, with numerous trucks beaming out t.v. footage with large satellite booms. It appeared that many in the crowd came prepared to tell their personal stories, carrying signs and photographs of family members who were affected in some way by the Cuban Revolution. As is typical of modern life in the United States, many of those attending brought their own cameras or used cellphones to record the events.
A portable stage had been assembled in the center of Calle Ocho earlier in the day. Later in the evening, after several rousing speeches and recorded songs delivered over loudspeakers in front of the stage (almost all in Spanish), many participants went up on the platform to take their own pictures of the gathering. The rally was reported on the local news that evening and in the Miami papers the next day.