Review by Wayne Swanson •
We all know Cuba as that land of classic but disintegrating American cars, Fidel Castro, cigar-making and smoking, the evils of communism, classic but crumbling architecture, and béisbol. Yet all of these stereotypes are centered on the nation’s few urban centers. In reality, 85% of Cuba is rural. “Cuba was from its dawn an agricultural nation,” writes Cuban historian Aldo Daniel Naranjo. “This is why the country man, the campesino, plays a primary role in continuing to shape the national and cultural identity.”
Dallas-based documentary photographer Richard Sharum takes us into their seldom-shown world in Campesino Cuba. Over a four-year period, Sharum traveled across rural Cuba, exploring the lives of these isolated farmers and their relationship with the land. The result is a rich look at life in the countryside at a time of transition, when the younger generation is leaving in search of wider opportunities in the cities.
In 106 duotone images, Sharum captures the lush tropical landscapes, the rhythms of daily life, and the people at work and play. We see workers in the fields, kids at play and in school, elders holding photographs of their elders, young lovers, and more. The homes they live in may be primitive, but homey. The farming is certainly basic. Thanks in large part to 60 years of U.S. embargoes, the campesinos lack modern tools, machinery, and farming techniques that could make them more productive and Cuba better fed.
The striking high-contrast black-and-white images capture an existence that may be spare, yet full. The palette of dark shadows and deep blacks also conveys an ominous sense that this culture might be disappearing.
The images are richly reproduced on large 11.5 x 8.5-inch pages. Most are presented full-bleed, and many span both pages of the spread to dramatic effect. Supporting them are text passages, presented in English and Spanish, that delve into aspects of the campesino existence. First is an essay by writer Domingo Cuza Pedrera, who grew up a campesino and presents a gentle portrait of daily life. It’s a fond remembrance of a simple way of living, impoverished perhaps, but with ample food and time to play between the work of planting, tending fields and livestock, and harvesting. The second essay, by Cuban historian Aldo Daniel Naranjo, acknowledges the darker history of exploitation, repression, and revolt that campesinos have endured from colonial times onward. Finally, five campesinos share their thoughts on campesino life.
The images and text put the campesino perspective front and center. Yet for such a strong documentary project, the lack of additional documentation is a bit frustrating. The two essayists are identified by name only (the fact that one grew up as a campesino and the other is a noted historian is only found in the book’s press release). Sharum’s name is on the spine of the book and the cover page. That’s it. There is no biographical information about him or his credentials for a project like this. For the record, he is an accomplished documentary photographer specializing in socio-economic and social justice issues whose work has been exhibited internationally. In interviews about the book he has spoken compellingly about the character of the campesinos, and his images reflect the strong rapport he developed with them.
Campesino Cuba documents the living conditions and farming methods of this rural community. But more than that, it’s a tender portrait of the people and the moments that make up their lives.
Contributing Editor Wayne Swanson is a San Diego-based fine art photographer and writer.
Campesino Cuba, Richard Sharum
Photographer: Richard Sharum, born Corpus Christi, Texas, resides Dallas, Texas, USA
Publisher: GOST Books (London, England, copyright 2021)
Essays: Domingo Cuza Pedrera, Aldo Daniel Naranjo
Text: English and Spanish
Hardcover book, sewn binding, 106 duotone photographs, 11.5 x 8.5 inches, 208 pages, printed in Italy
Photobook designer: GOST (Katie Clifford, Gemma Gerhard, Justine Hucker, Allon Kaye, Eleanor Macnair, Claudia Paladini, Ana Rocha)
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