90s Cuba


An Interview with

Tria Giovan


Tria Giovan

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.

Car - Santa Maria Del Mar, Cuba - 1990 A Sunday afternoon drive to Santa Maria del Mar beach, outside of Havana. There are at least 12 people in the car. Taken on my first trip to the country.

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.

Dancing - Isabela de Sagua, Cuba - 1993 Kids dancing on a summer afternoon at a seaside pavilion in Isabela de Sagua, in the Holguin province, in 1993. Another of the most iconic images from the series.

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.

More Records - Havana, Cuba - 1993 The sale of personal items such as records and books was a common sight on the streets of Havana during the 1990s “ Special Period.”. A wide variety of musical genres — Russian, Pop (Los Van Van) Son, Cuban country music from the 40s and on (Los Trio Matamores) and African religion Yoruba-inspired (Orisha) are on display here.
Plane Ride - Remedios, Cuba - 1992 A playground ride with fighter jets in the town of Remedios in the province of Villa Clara. Taken on one of many cross-country trips.
Shoe Repair - Cueto, Cuba 1993 People wait in line for an outdoor shoe repair in the town of Cueto in the Holguin province. Taken on one of several cross-country trips to explore every major city and town on the 875-mile-long island.
Girls sleep in the sand at a local beach — Santa Maria del Mar — outside of Havana No towels in sight at this beach.
View on July 26 - Havana, Cuba - 1993 Flags are flown for the anniversary of the storming of the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba (1953). This event is considered the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. The view is from the Hotel Colina in Vedado looking towards Old Havana.
Memorial Gonzalez - Ciego de Avila, Cuba - 1992 A memorial to a loved son who was killed in an uprising after the triumph of the Cuba Revolution.
Guitar Gun - Las Tunas, Cuba - 1993 A wonderful example of Cuban revolutionary graphics used as billboards, posters and murals everywhere. These replaced any form of commercial advertising.
Mural at The Bay of Pigs - Playa Giron, Cuba - 1993 A mural covers a bathhouse at a beach located on the peninsula of Playa Giron, where the Bay of Pigs invasion took place.
Beauty Salon in Vedado-Havana, Cuba - 1993 One of more widely published and sold images from the series, a beauty salon in the residential neighborhood of Vedado provides services on the back patio of a private home during the era of economic hardship known as “the Special Period.”
Helado - Havana, Cuba - 1994 People wait in line to buy ice cream in Havana. Bicycles imported from China were one of the main forms of transportation at the time.
Guagua - Central Havana, Cuba - 1994 An overcrowded public bus (guaguas, as they are called in Cuba) rides through Central Havana. During the 1990s “Special Period,” fuel was scarce, and transportation was difficult. Over-flowing buses were a common sight during this time.