In 1990, Tria Giovan landed in Havana, Cuba. On the first day of photography, she thought: "I'm not going to have enough film." This would end up being the beginning of 12 trips over the next 6 years, shooting over 25,000 images on over 3,000 roles of medium format film. Later, she would publish two books: Cuba: The Elusive Island (1996) and The Cuba Archives (2017).
The following is our interview with Tria Giovan, along with her selection of 14 images with captions.
When was the moment you knew it was going to be Cuba?
The first day I was there. I went with a group through The Center for Cuban Studies. I arrived in Havana and was out photographing and everything was interesting. There was an incredible openness in the people and the physicality of the city was that way too. The way the architecture was set up, the doors opened onto the street, so it was like walking into somebody's home. I would approach, and people would say, "Come on in." I shot so much film on the first day, I thought, "I'm not going to have enough film." The thing about photography back then is that there were still places that had not been photographed much. It doesn't really work that way anymore.
Can you tell us more about the openness of the people and their relationship to the camera?
Well, to begin with, the people in Cuba are warm. And this was before cell phones. Cameras didn't even exist there, or they did, but on a very limited scale. There was none of that camera fatigue. When I look at the pictures, and at the people, there was something about the way that they looked back at me that said something about the energy that I was putting out there, some sort of emotional exchange. It shows how you come at somebody — if you're open, you're not being aggressive and if you're respectful. With all of those portraits, I would ask them before I took their picture. They would look back at me and they wouldn't change a thing. That was amazing.
You took over 25,000 analog photographs on over 3,000 roles of medium format film. It seems like you were almost addicted.
Yes it does! With that sort of street, or documentary photography, you can never hesitate. You have to be completely present and ready to shoot something quickly, and not question it. You have to go with your instincts. It becomes a reflex. It's kind of like that point where you're learning a language and you don't have to think about it anymore. Watching, responding… watching, responding. Also I felt like I needed to document everything, and see every part of the island. So it was also about exploring.
So in a way, it was about covering the whole place, and being possibly one of the first photographers to do that so extensively?
There were a few people, but not many, and particularly when you got further out there. I remember this little town Baracoa — people didn't even know what to think. It was a sort of, "Who are you and what are you doing here?" There were no tourists.
How does Cuba relate to your other photography?
Adventure, exploration and curiosity have always been there, but I think my real motivation, or compulsion has always been to capture places before they are forever changed. Cuba had been so isolated, and it seemed inevitable that it would be developed. I think that's what was imprinted on me, growing up as a child in St. Thomas — witnessing the homogenization, the physical development of the landscape — and I remember in the 70s being really disheartened by that. I felt that because of Cuba's isolation, for better or for worse, it had been saved from some of that homogenization, and it was true.
Once it happens, you can't go back. It's sad. Change is inevitable, but when you start making giant leaps on the physical landscape of a place, the damage is done. Look at New York. If I had only realized what was happening, I would have shot even more. I would have photographed the Music District, which was a street that only had music instrument stores, and the Notions District with its trimmings and button stores. With my early years photographing in New York, it was more about exploration. I didn’t realize that in fact it was about documenting things before they're gone.