Back in November 2016, it was reported that Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro had died. The former prime minster and president’s death signified political changes which had been unravelling in the socialist paradise over the past decade, so London-based photographer Joshua Osborne decided to seize the opportunity for a holiday before the country developed beyond recognition. But when he got to Havana, Josh found himself captivated not by the country’s picture-postcard past but by its future: youth.
The result is Habanaboy, a self-published book, designed by Joe Joiner with a foreword written by Dazed arts and culture editor Ashleigh Kane. "It’s a portrait book of street-casted boys that I found interesting whilst staying in the capital,” Josh explains. “The project developed further the longer I stayed, and I began exploring the different subcultures and urban tribes that exist in modern Havana including the reggaeton, skate and drag scenes. I also interviewed some of the boys with the translation help of two Habaneros that are now very close friends of mine to gauge opinions and a clearer insight into what life is really like out there away from the tourist idea of salsa, rum and cigars.” Before the book launches at Protein, Shoreditch on 1st September, we caught up with Josh to hear more.
My girlfriend and I had always wanted to visit Cuba, she loves the music and I’m a massive boxing fan (they’re the best in the world) so we planned to get away from London in January. We were also advised from friends that had been recently to visit sooner rather than later as it was on the cusp of change, due to new relations with America. I was aware of the photographic potential there from seeing other photographer’s works/books in the past, so although I was going in blind with no focus I knew I had to go prepared.
Tell us about the subcultures which weave their way through the book’s pages.
What started as a street casting style project quickly developed into something slightly deeper. I became aware of the varied sub-cultures due to making friends with two local boys who helped massively, we would discuss what life was like as a young person in modern Havana and they explained and introduced me to the scenes. The ones that I touched on in this book were the reggaeton boys, the mikis [Western-obsessed teenagers whose name is taken from Mikey Mouse], the skaters, the patriots and the gay scene.
Everyone there seems to have a group that they fit in and interact with, and although you get the vibe it’s an open community it was clear there were groups that you either associated with or ignored. I’d say the mikis were the most open and carefree: they just seemed to coast by through making a bit of money, partying and meeting girls. No stress or drama, instead enjoying the finer things and rolling with whatever came their way.
How did you gain access to the Habanaboys in the first place? Was it difficult to gain the trust of the boys?
I met the two boys Javier and Roig a few days into the trip — they were actually chatting up my girlfriend and her sister at the time, but within minutes we all hit it off. We met with them over the course of a week and they were happy to show us around and take us to the less touristy spots under the non-verbal agreement that we pay for the food and drinks. It was a week into the trip I found the direction of the project and so arranged to meet with Javier to pitch it and check if he and Roig would be down for coming on board. Over the next few weeks they would meet me outside my casa every morning and we would walk the districts of the capital, if I saw a boy they would approach him and 99% of the time they were fine with me taking their portraits. I also wrote a list of questions for the boys to ask which they recorded off my iPhone, I knew I wanted to get across the opinions of these locals in the book so with the help of a translator back in London we managed to include segments that I felt would give the audience a deeper insight into their world rather than just imagery. Through having the boys with me I gained instant access and trust, there was the odd day where I would roam the streets alone but I wasn’t as successful.
Why did you chose to focus on Havana over Cuba more widely?
We visited a few other cities outside of Havana after a week of being there but quickly realised the capital had a lot more going on and we missed the infectious energy so returned for our last week. We were due to fly home after that, but it was my girlfriend that persuaded me to book another flight and stay another week alone to finish the book. It was strange at first being on my own but soon after it was back to work with the boys, it was then I realised holiday was over and I was on a mission.
Among a publication with pages filled with boys, there’s also the surprise addition of a woman. What’s her story?
I saw this amazing boy and said “tomar tu uno foto por favor”. Immediately I realised that this boy was in fact a woman, she was homeless and appeared a little drunk. She linked arms and began walking with me. My initial reaction was to wonder how to get out of this situation, but the more we walked I found her really intriguing. She was sharing some horrible stories about how her child was taken from her and that’s why she’s turned to drink. We went to a local bar and shared great conversations, she spoke very good English which wasn’t the case with most people I met out there. I took some portraits of her and we went our separate ways — she’s the only woman that features in the book. It’s a nice little reminder of my initial mistake and I still believe she has one of the strongest looks in the edit.
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