Q&A: Photojournalist on documenting Cuba, challenging country’s stereotypes

A panorama of Marta with other migrants crossing Ecuador by bus. They traveled the length of Ecuador in one day from the Peruvian to the Colombian border. Photo by Lisette Poole

Despite the American fascination with Cuba, life there continues to be a mystery to many outsiders–helped little by media coverage of the island. Now, the death of Fidel Castro offers the opportunity to move beyond the tired themes, from communism to old cars, and toward a better understanding of a nation that has had such an outsized influence on US policy.

Lisette Poole is a Cuban-American photojournalist based on the island. One of her more recent projects, published last month with Time, chronicles the journey of two women who endured a 8,000-mile journey to get into the US. Her goal, she says, was to capture a dynamic country that is evolving beyond the narratives.

CJR spoke with Poole about misconceptions of Cuba, how she approaches her work, and how the media should rethink its coverage.

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Fans crowd the set of this music video shoot in Old Havana. Usually reggaeton stars are mobbed by fans wherever they go.

What initially inspired you to document everyday life in Cuba?

I grew up hearing and talking about Cuba my whole life because my mom is from there. She left when she was 12 years old and stayed very strongly connected to her family, the island, and the culture. So I grew up in a very strongly identified Cuban household. I started traveling there in high school and then after graduating with a degree in photojournalism from San Francisco State University, I started going back to Cuba and seeing that even as somebody who grew up knowing relatively a lot about the island and the culture, I was very surprised by what I found when I was spending long periods of time there. I could tell right away that I had a special insight or duty to show this Cuba that I was seeing– that wasn’t being portrayed in outside media or really at all. For someone like myself, who I think was exposed to Cuba a lot more than most Americans, I felt drawn to go back and continue finding stories, projects, and visual ways of expressing what I was finding.

What exactly did you find that surprised you?

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Given the history of the Cuban revolution, the communist government, and Fidel Castro–who was such a strong figure and essentially the face of the island–I wasn’t really expecting to find such a vibrant place full of life. It’s colorful and the way that people interact with one another is very in your face compared to American society. I found people to be really warm and friendly and loud at times. What I found was the opposite of what I at least expected. 

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A young couple at Lenin Park after swimming in the park’s flooded amphitheater.

What are some of the stereotypes of Cuba that you often saw portrayed?

I grew up watching documentaries about Cuba and seeing photos of Cuba because my mom was always consuming media. So there was always a newspaper, magazine article, new movie, or new whatever put in front of me about Cuba my whole life. Despite that, I still rarely saw more than the few basic images of old cars, Che [Guevara], something associated with the revolution, or maybe a national monument. Always just a basic handful of images. Sometimes the beach was thrown in there, but I noticed there were not a whole lot of images of the actual people. While that narrative is true there’s much more to the story.

What was it like when you first started documenting Cuba? What were you looking for?

When I first started going to Cuba, the first project I ever did was about my family. I spent the summer of 2010 getting to know all of my mother’s family. I was photographing them and at the same time I was looking for a story. About halfway through my trip I was talking to a local artist and friend of mine who made me realize that the story I was doing about my family was the story I was looking for. My guide was basically this idea that this was the life my mom had left behind and what my life could have been like if she decided to stay.

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Guests at Cabaret Guanimar during a Chacal y Yakarta show in the outskirts of Havana. Entree fees are equal to about the average Cuban monthly salary ($20).

What are you ultimately looking for when you do a story?

My goal is still the same–to just show the Cuba that I’m seeing, that I want people to see, or that I’m excited about. I ask myself what do I find interesting that hasn’t been covered yet or what haven’t people seen that they may find unexpected?

What’s the story behind the photos published in Time for the story “The Long Way To America?”

We all have family, friends, and neighbors who have left their homelands to go to the US. So that’s going to be an important story to tell until the end of time.

For this particular story, after living in Cuba for the last two years, I found myself really gravitating towards it. I had been doing research and found that more Cubans were leaving the island than had left in decades.  So I was like, ‘OK, well why? What’s the disconnect here?’ There’s not one answer, but I think a lot of it does have to do with US policy. People feel like the Cuban Adjustment Act is going to go away so they figure why not take advantage.

This started as a personal project. I had been hanging out with one of the women from the story for a while and we had talked about my interest in doing this type of story. When she did decide to make this trip, she told me and we talked about me going with her. I had presented the idea once before at Time, but once I had the subjects, I went back to present it again and they were excited about it luckily so that’s how it found a home. 

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After crossing into Brazil, Marta and Liset wait nervously for the signal to run to awaiting cars.

How does your process change when you are doing personal work compared to assignment work?

When I am doing a personal project I have a lot more time and I have a lot more freedom. My personal projects often become much more about my relationships with the subjects — the people who are ultimately going to let me into their lives for an extended period of time. On the other hand, when I’m shooting on assignment, I might have one day to be in someone’s life. In that time I still want to get the photo that I think tells the story and goes with the written assignment. It is just very different than spending six months or a year or years with the same people.

What misconceptions about Cuba do you find most frustrating?

Oh, there are so many. For me, I think the biggest misconception that I’ve noticed Americans have is that Cubans somehow don’t understand how good they have it. I find that to be really frustrating because Cubans do actually understand the benefits that their government and systems have–they will be the first to tell you. Education, health care, safety–I mean a couple of years ago Cuba was ranked as one of the safest countries in the Americas. Cubans love that and they understand that. So when they choose to leave and they choose to come to the United States, for example, and involve themselves in our whole economic lifestyle, they know what they are leaving behind. They still make that decision because they want a better life. Cubans are very influenced by the United States. They definitely watch more American movies and TV shows than I do. They see it, they know we’re right next door and so they want the romanticized ideals of lots of stuff and an easier life. You can’t really blame someone for that craving. 

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Carlett Spike is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @CarlettSpike.