PARIS MATCH: Who introduced you to this underground intelligentsia? How did that happen? Did they trust you right away?
MICHAEL DWECK: Looking back, I think my first trip to Havana was like walking into a nightclub – and actually connecting with that group was like picking up a woman at the bar. You see a confident, sexy woman across the dance floor. You catch her eye. You look one another over. You flirt. And, in my case, you stay together for a while and have some fun.
Only here there was something of a matchmaker – an artist friend I'd met who was part of this extended scene. He took me to this party – and it was just like seeing that woman across the room. Only now, the room is an oceanfront villa and waves are crashing over the seawall. Kelvis Ochoa and his band are playing around the pool for this wild crowd. And now the beautiful woman is a clique of 200 beautiful people.
Same rules though – I mingle, we flirt, we get to know one another. Remember these are all artists – filmmakers, painters, dancers, photographers. We spoke a common language.
I'm sure if I stumbled into this tightly-knit group of artists – this farandula –wearing a suit and talking about investment banking, they would have brushed me off. But as an artist, the attraction was mutual. We knew one another and developed a trust that allowed for an amazing amount of access.
PARIS MATCH: How did the various groups form? What do they have in common?
MICHAEL DWECK: I'm not sure how any group forms – not just in Cuba, but anywhere.
I suppose you start with geographical convenience and mutual interests. A lot of the notable artists in Havana went to university together or trained in the same places. They're all creative-types so, again, they have this common language and it blooms and balloons from there. No different than the painters in the Barbizon school or the writers in Beats movement. Talented people – and in thiscase, beautiful people – have a tendency to flock together.
The foreword of the book touches on this – the group's almost incestuous interconnectedness: "a model dates a photographer who is friends with a musician whose song is chosen by a director for a film with an actor who admires the work of an artist who uses the model for a model.
"That's how things work.
PARIS MATCH: How could you explain us their motto (« Por un mundo mejor ») ?
MICHAEL DWECK: Por un mundo mejor means "for a better world." The group usually abbreviates it "PMM" and that's the text message you'll get in the afternoon if there's a gathering that night. If you see PMM on your phone you know you're in and you know, in less than 12 hours, you'll be drinking a 15-year rum and surrounded by top-notch musicians and an endless supply of beautiful women who seem to salsa with an extra gear in their hips. That's the best part of the day, hands down – getting that text is almost arousing.
Depending on your reading, the motto's definition can list in a few directions. There's a certain optimism and ambition when you point it outwardly: these are artists using their respective crafts to improve the world – or, at least, their world, Cuba's world.
The more narcissistic tilt, though, is that this farandula considers itself its "thebetter world," as in, "This party is only for the better world." You can spin it both ways.
I've been asked if it can also be read as a motto of rebellion – which, no, I don'treally see. This isn't Che's "Hasta la victoria siempre." These are artists whose definition of a "better world" is in terms of social happenings, not necessarily political ones. They're not concerned with upheaval, so much as sex, music, art, alcohol, etc... The important things.
PARIS MATCH: Did they take any political positions? Do they want political changes? Are politics one of the topics of those parties? Do they talk about Castro?
MICHAEL DWECK: Most people in Cuba want things to improve: They want the embargo lifted. They want to travel restrictions ended or eased. They want more access to money.
The artists are no different but, that said, politics were never really discussed atany of the happenings I attended. These weren't Occupy Havana rallies, they were the parties of a well-connected clique. Artists relaxed, talked about their work, drank, gossiped, collaborated on paintings, played dominoes, flirted. Why complain about foreign relations when you can salsa? Why debate the role of government when you can make love?
That said, artists will be artists – minor political points will be made in their works, albeit subtly; certain pieces will be crafted to be interpreted in different manners. But there's a code, silent or spoken, and most of these artists know where thelines are and aim to stay well behind them for obvious reasons.
As far as Castro goes, no one I met talked about him and I attributed that to different things on different days. On one hand, there might be repercussions fo anything approximating sedition. On the other hand, Castro's government is like the weather. It's omnipresent. It's a fact of life. It's there and no amount of yammering is going to break the clouds.
PARIS MATCH: What do they like? In fashion? Music? Do they have fetishes/mascots?
MICHAEL DWECK: Like most Latin cultures, Cubans are very sexually charged – and very open about their sensuality. Maybe it's this confidence that makes them more beautiful – or the general seduction that hangs wet in the air like fog on shaft of a jetty. I remember passing by a hospital in Havana and seeing these nurses in their 50's and 60's who were just stunning in fishnet stockings and highheels. I wanted to break my leg just to have an excuse to talk to them. It reminded me of Joseph Cotten's line in "Citizen Kane" about the myth of the attractive nurse being false – well, you can tell Orson Welles had never been to Havana.
You can't get "Vogue Paris" in Cuba – or any magazine for that matter – but you wouldn't glean that from looking around. The people glow with what seems to bean effortless style sense. Maybe it's the effect of La Maison, where there are twofashion shows nightly. A lot of the women make their own clothes, but you'd never know it – you get the feeling they could walk naked in the jungle and comeout dazzling in glamorous leaf-and-vine ensembles. They're amazing.
The music is in it's own league too – an extension of the island's passion and pride. Seeing Kelvis Ochoa, Descemer Bueno, the sexy Sexto Sentido, the beautiful Diana Fuentes; Cubaton bands like Gente De Zona; jazz acts like Pablo Milanes' daughter Haydee, Roberto Fonseca – that, to me, is what the BuenaVista Social Club must have been like in its prime.
Our largest concerts in the States draw 70,000 people – and those are the huge ones. The Peace without Borders concert in Revolution Square drew 1.5 million people. Imagine a million and a half beautiful people dancing, smiling, singing? That tells you all you need to know about music in Cuba.
PARIS MATCH: Where do these Beautiful People wander? Where and what are the hippest places (bars, clubs, restaurants)?
MICHAEL DWECK: One of my favorite aspects of the farandula is that these folks don't need to be seen in any particular hot-spot. They are, in effect, their own scene and almost seem to prefer the exclusiveness of an "open house." There are three or four different places – owned by people in the group – where you can walk in on any given night and expect a party. That might mean walking in with a bottle of Bordeaux and playing dominoes at Pichi's house with Benicio DelToro or Juanes. Or showing up to an artist's studio and spending the whole nightwatching 1960's Mexican music videos projected on walls while dancing with the beautiful Yoindra Perez and roasting a pig.
When we did go out, the places to be were La Zorra y El Cuervo, maybe theTropicana on a misty night with its six-tier stage, el Emperador in the Foscabuilding, or Tondes de Vallanueva where Renaldo my cigar roller works.
PARIS MATCH: How do they earn their living? Is everything linked to the cash and the things that are sent by the expatriates in Miami?
MICHAEL DWECK: How does any artist anywhere earn his or her living? You create, spread the word, and rub elbows with the right people, right? You know, these are just like any other artists. Dancers might work for the government's contemporary dance company, but other than that, these people do like any other independent artist in their field. Painters and photographers have studios in Havana, but sell and exhibit all over the world. The elusive K'chohas pieces in the MOMA in New York. Roberto Fabelo exhibits in global arts shows. The beautiful 20-year-old painter Rachel Valdez – who's featured on thecover of "Habana Libre" – is studying in Barcelona at the moment – she just had a solo show in Havana and has a show in New York next week. And the same goes for filmmakers – they get funding from, say, Mexico or Spain and place films in festivals from Sundance to Cannes.
Remember that Fidel Castro has always been an exponent of the arts. It's just like Cuba's baseball team – these are the people that he wants to be the face of the country. These are the folks for whom travel-bans don't apply; they're the ambassadors that Cuba sends out into the world.
PARIS MATCH: The cuban socialist elite has always exist. Is the big change thatnow they don't mind being seen and known as they are? Why did it change now?
MICHAEL DWECK: What you describe as the "socialist elite" is a purely political manifestation. Yes, since the revolution it's always existed and, yes, it is, by definition, it's own farandula – but this and the artists' sect I photographed are mutually exclusive groups. They – the politicos – I'm sure they have their own meeting places, their own members, their own style but, frankly, I wasn't really interested. As for the artists I photographed, I'm not really sure why they're finally comfortable with being seen outside of Cuba. I think it's partially situational. I'mnot a National Geographic stringer trying to make a documentary, so I was able to gain their trust from the inside. I knew who they were and they knew my work– I'm sure that helped.
Also, there's the fact that Cuba itself is changing. Cubans can have cell phones and run small businesses and sell their homes. Starting next week, they can begin to own property too. Talk about a metaphor for change – in a week's time Cuban citizen will literally be buying back pieces of the island from the government. The regime's tight restrictions are lessening and maybe these artists recognized that and saw my project as I saw it: as a chance to capture a culture and a way of life on the cusp of change, at a turning point in history. Cuba will never be the same again – I was lucky to capture it when I did.
PARIS MATCH: How do Alex Castro and Camilo Guevara live? Where? How do they earn their living? Did they impose you their own terms for your shootings? and publications? Where did the shoots take place?
MICHAEL DWECK: A lot of people I talk to about the project get caught-up in name-recognition and I try to right them on a couple points related to Alex and Camilo. Firstly, they're by no means the epicenter of this farandula. If anything, they're in the fringes and loosely associated with the group. Both Che and Fidel Castro had other children – I was only interested in photographing Alex and Camilo, as both are also photographers. They fit into one of the missions of the book, which is to explore the creative class of the island.
Secondly, there's an idea that, because they're literally the "sons of the revolution," these guys must live in opulent flats, have servants, etc. – which is categorically false. Alex and Camilo basically live like every other photographer Havana – which is basically. On one of my return trips to Cuba, we exchanged gifts. Alex and I swapped some hard to come by books and I gave Camilo a tripod, which isn't the easiest thing to track down in Cuba.
As for access, there were no issues, no restrictions, no requests – not during shooting or during interviews. The shoots were like a photographic jam session after we got acquainted. I photographed Camilo and Alex at will; Camilo and Alex photographed me at will. If you didn't know their respective surnames, you might mistake us for any three photogs playing-around. We met in hotel lounges, in a friend's house, in cafés and restaurants – just like I did with many of the book's other subjects.
PARIS MATCH: Are all the people we meet in your book exclusively heirs of thesystem's executive elite?
MICHAEL DWECK: If by "heirs" you mean the literal successors or children, thenno. As I said, the political and the artistic factions of Cuba wouldn't form but the slightest overlap in a venn diagram. If, however, you're asking if these artists benefit from the stances of the government, I'd say that's a more appropriate – if not entirely accurate – assumption. Cuba is a place where social connections trump politics, status or wealth - and it's a country that looks after its artists. So,you can deduce that a well-connected artist in Cuba is going to court certain privileges.
But don't all talented artists court privilege in one way or another? During this project, I went to countless parties with some of the world's more inspired artists, saw a culture my country embargoes, and had unannounced Cuban beauties appearing on my terrace in the moonlight. Am I privileged, or do I just have, asyou say, le cul bordé de nouilles?
PARIS MATCH: How do they deal with the « other » Cuba? with the Cubans that live in much more modest conditions? Do they mind those social differences? And you, how did you feel about that?
MICHAEL DWECK: Well, by our standards – American standards or Europeanstandards – these artists themselves are living in "modest conditions." Even the most well-off painters or filmmakers in this group don't have anywhere near the rank of luxury or wealth you'd expect to be aligned with the notion of "success." The gap between the haves and have-nots in Cuba isn't the chasm to which we're accustomed and that makes its hard for us to conceptualize what really constitutes "wealth" in a poor nation. (Just as we have trouble qualifying the terms of poverty in wealthy nations.) I think a lot of people would be surprised by how "well off" Cubans live. Do they have it better than some? Yes. Are they living like Saudi princes? Hardly.
The whole notion of the book depicting "a privileged class in a classless society" leaves a sour taste in some mouths, but of course there are stories that belie thatimpression. The artists René Francisco is a good example – he's single-handedly building a school in his hometown. There's really no charity-mechanism in Cuba and here he is selling paintings outside the country, buying materials with the money and building a school without any assistance.
I can't really speak to my own impressions on any Cuban inequality as I spent almost all my time in Havana. I wouldn't want to extrapolate that into a judgment of the entire island. Again, I'll let National Geographic handle that business.
I stand by the book as an artistic impression of a group of people and their setting – a sensual and participatory account of one group of friends in a changing Cuba. It's not an almanac or a UN humanitarian report. Any social commentary is microcosmic: the allegory of a worldly paradise beset by threats from without and by new hierarchies from within. I can dissect each photo and concoct a thesis, but that was never the point. "Habana Libre" is a narrative project as much about seduction as anything else. It's a film in stills about the sensual curve of a woman's side when she waits in bed for her lover and how, in the right light, it might resemble the southern coastline of her country.
PARIS MATCH: Could you tell us the story of a typical night out in Havana?
MICHAEL DWECK: A typical night out would come after a typical day out – sobasically, I would shoot from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. and then go out again with my cameras to wherever the PMM text indicated. On an average night, we'd start with drinks at someone's studio, have dinner at a different artist's house, then maybe catch a set at a jazz club like La Zorra y el Cuervo, go hear Kelvis play at Don Cangrejo, see a show at the Karl Marx Theatre. Some nights I'd run loose down Avenue de Presidente, right in front of my apartment, and just watch the groups of kids 'til 4 a.m. – 50,000 of them on a 25-block stretch, mostly 14-15 year-olds who form their own mini-farandulas on different street corners. Musicians. Magicians. Skateboarders. Fashion kids. Or I'd just follow my camera and end up where the beautiful women ended up: with lovers on the Malecon, ina club, a stalled elevator, a terrace or the back seat of a car.
But, yeah, I think the best parts were hanging out in the artists’ homes – you never knew who was going to come in or what was going to happen. Just show up with a bottle of rum and an open mind and the night does the rest… And that’s how I imagine the famed Parisian salons in the 1930’s – a writer would come in and, after a conversation, you realize you've read two of his books. Same with a filmmaker – "Oh, I know him because he won an Oscar for..."There's a woman who looks familiar. Of course! You saw her in Pavel's film "Flash." Kelvis is writing a film score with Lester Hamlet while Pablo Milanes' son plays along on piano. When they're done, they'll all run out and shoot the scene they just scored.
It was an amazing thing to see – even more amazing to photograph. And it happened every night – 'til 3 a.m. Then it was time to roll home, have a cigar onthe veranda and tuck in for three hours of sleep.
PARIS MATCH: Who are the persons that most impressed you in Cuba? Why Rachel, is she your muse?
MICHAEL DWECK: René Francisco is one, for sure. I mentioned his charity work earlier. His gratitude for his talent and his attempt to give back to his community without looking for any recognition is an inspiration. You get the feeling that Rene's work is very personal to him, as art should be.
As for Rachel Valdez, from the moment I first photographed her, I knew she had something special – some seductive charm, a glance that grasped out for pleasure. She just intuitively understands her body and how to move to achieve some perfect, intangible effect in a photo - sensuality and a playful type of candor. It wasn't until after I started photographing her that I learned she was a wonderful painter – and when I saw her work it made total sense. Her control of form is the same on the canvas – breathtaking and evocative, tantalizing and vexing. Slowly, she became something of an unconscious muse, the running thread of the project like some gorgeous personification of Cuba with a raw self-aware sensuality that glued everything together. She was the book's respiration.
PARIS MATCH: We know that prostitution is very common in Cuba. Even in the upscale social circles of the country. Do the glamorous and sexy creatures that you shot resort of that activity?
MICHAEL DWECK: I see you're a man who's had his share of fun in Cuba's "upscale social circles." So you know how things work. Even if you're not dealing with prostitutes, a beautiful woman has never been at a disadvantage in the company of an older man with money, right?
In reality, I've been asked this question before and always fall back on the same reply: If these photos were shot in Paris, Leeds, San Francisco, wherever else –would anyone ask if the subjects were prostitutes? When I photographed beautiful women in Montauk, Tokyo, Barcelona, Fez – no one asked me that.
PARIS MATCH: Did you have a response from the Cuban Authorities after the publication?
MICHAEL DWECK: There hasn't been an official response from the government, but I do have an exhibition in Havana in February 2012 – what will be one of the first exhibitions for a living American artist at the Fototeca de Cuba since the revolution.
I think that's a good sign. If Cuba doesn't like you, you usually don't get those opportunities. They're not shy about that stuff.
PARIS MATCH: Did you have news from Alex Castro and Camilo Guevara? And from the others?
MICHAEL DWECK: I stay in touch with several of the subjects from the book - Rachel, especially. She's having a show in New York, as I said, and we have plans to collaborate on something for my next project in Paris.
The Cuba-related news I'm hearing is pretty much the same news you get from the papers – the things I mentioned earlier. People can sell their cars and homes and open businesses. Obama's allowing Americans to transfer more money to the island. These are relatively small changes, but on an island that hasn't really changed since 1959, they amount to a lot – another reason I'm glad I was able to get in there and work when I did. Who knows what Havana – or this farnadula - will look like in another five years.
PARIS MATCH: How many trips did you take? When and how long was the first one? How did you decide you were going to do that?
MICHAEL DWECK: I took eight trips to Havana over 14 months, the first of which was in March, 2009, and lasted a long week.
I can't really articulate the reason for the decision. It'd be like trying to definitively explain why I prefer steak to chicken or, better yet, a brunette to a blonde. It's amatter of taste, attraction, flavor.
I knew I wanted to photograph Cuba emotionally, but it took time to understand what that meant to me. Cuba, since the revolution, has come to represent some semi-dormant danger to America. Of course, there's more to it than that – but, yes, mystery and danger's part of it. And, to a person like myself, allure comes hand-in-hand with danger. There's an edge there too – like that which gives film noir its mysterious tow. I tend think in cinematic terms and that's the vibe I cameto feel from the island: something from the shadows of Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard," the lure of Louis Brunel's "Belle du Jour," the lush filters of Claude LeLouch's "Un Home et Un Femme." There's danger, but there's also sensuality, beauty and singular charm. That was my idea of the island and I knew if I could just get down there and point a camera around, something would come of it. Call it intuition, I guess.
It's like the "typical night" I described earlier. You jump into the mix and you see where it takes you. With my previous works, everything was very premeditated – not always staged, but framed out in a certain regard. And that works for some projects, but, you know, you can only spend so much time in the driver's seat before the back seat starts looking tempting.
PARIS MATCH: What is your best memory in Cuba?
MICHAEL DWECK: I guess the most vivid and enjoyable memory would have to be that first night I described earlier, the one where I saw the farandula in action for the first time.
You have these ideas about a place or a population – for Cuba it was that sensuality and beauty and charm – and to see all of that flood toward you when you walk into a room, it's like a fight scene in a film where everything is slowed-down to let your mind catch-up. Maybe a love-scene is a better analogy – it's steamy and pulsing and seemingly choreographed all to push toward some arousing effect in its audience; to make you feel like you're there. Except in this case, of course, I was there.
I swear that night is going to ruin every party I go to for the rest of my life. It set this standard for first impressions that will never be topped.
Meeting the sons of Fidel and Che was surreal. Working with Rachel and some of the other beautiful women was amazing. But I don't think anything will top that first glimpse – that revelation that, yes, there is joy in Cuba. You wink at it and it winks back.