Views from Combaté

Photo essay by Leo Turpan

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.
— Susan Sontag, “On Photography”

At 1 p.m. last New Year’s Eve I found myself fifty miles outside of Havana following a young Cuban man down an unkempt dirt road leading into the village of Combaté. His name was Johan, and I had met him an hour before agreeing to go. The town to which we were headed consisted of a hundred or so small concrete homes, and we were heading to Johan’s girlfriend’s cousin’s house, where he had assured me I would find authentic scenes of Cuban life.

“Inside the home, on a day of festivities, this is where real Cuban life exists, not out in the streets of crumbling architecture,” he had told me.

Johan and I met while I was photographing the empty, decrepit colonial houses of the Vedado neighborhood in Havana. Not long after that, we boarded a crowded bus bearing loads of rice, frozen meat, sweet wine liqueur, and chocolate-frosted cakes. The bus slowly escaped the chaos of Havana.

When we arrived at the house in Combaté, Johan’s girlfriend was nowhere to be found. A few young girls darted in and out of the kitchen, and two uncles were already extraordinarily drunk. While Johan attempted to deal with the situation, I shyly began to shoot some photographs of the uncles and the yard. 

With these first photos, I initially felt a guilty sense of voyeurism. I had come to capture intimate scenes of Cuban life, but quickly realized that I was little more than a privileged outsider. Noticing my discomfort, Johan continued to assure me that I had nothing to worry about.

As we walked into the village, Johan introduced me to nearly everyone we passed, asking everyone if I could enter their home to take pictures. The majority of the houses consisted of a single large room with a kitchen and a hanging sheet dividing the living space from the bedroom. Most people were friendly and receptive, beckoning me in, but others responded with a harsh rejection or demanded some sort of compensation. One man happily allowed me to enter his home on the condition that I take a picture of him and his pig, insisting that the pig was part of “la familia.” 

My heart raced at the opportunity to photograph something both genuine and intimate. It felt like a chance to document a part of Cuba that most travelers don’t get to see. In capturing the livelihoods of this small community, I felt like I had some small amount of power to do justice to the situation. Still, as we made our way through the village, I grew more and more worried about how little I knew of photojournalism.

The way that Johan explained to the residents what I was doing in Cuba seemed to imply that there might be some sort of positive outcome if they allowed me to take photos of their homes: “He’s from the States. He’s a photographer. He’s working to document our lives.”

There seemed to be an implicit hope that an American with a camera must have some sort of power to change their lives. But what could I really bring to the table aside from a narrow vision of a single day? Could I actually give their reality the weight and truth it deserved?

A photograph can portray only a slice of reality. Whatever was photographed actually occurred, but the reality was framed by the photographer. With each click of the shutter, the photographer decides which parts of the situation are included in the picture and which are cropped out. 

In any given photograph, there’s a whole scene erupting around the frame. The photograph “of the uncle/on the right” might evoke a sense of loss and vulnerability, and I appreciate it for those emotional qualities. But the truth was that the man was just falling asleep at the foot of the bed, tired from a long day of celebration.

Later, Johan and I sat on the curb under the dim buzz of a streetlight in the Combaté dusk, sharing rice, beans, yucca, and beef, watching the village erupt in music and dance in order to begin the night’s celebration. I found myself second guessing the whole trip, thinking of everything the photos would leave out. Still, though I knew there was no way around the distorting effect of a photograph, I continued to capture what I believed was powerful and honest.


Part of the Ego issue