Photographer Tria Giovan’s The Cuba Archive is a portrait of a country and its people during the 90s – a difficult time in Cuba’s troubled history. The country was going through the Special Period, an extended period of economic crisis which began in 1989 due to Soviet subsidies diminishing and foreign investments yet to begin. The economic depression of the Special Period was at its most severe during Tria’s time there and it was defined by shortages of gasoline, diesel and other petrol sources.
25 years since the project began, photographer Tria has revisited the images editing down 25,000 images to a book of just 120. “Having grown up in the Caribbean there was a pull to familiar parts, as well as a desire to understand this enigmatic isolated country,” she says on why she travelled to Cuba in 1990. “Over the next six years I took 12 month-long trips, traversing the island.”
Tria spent her time immersing herself in the country’s history, literature and politics. “Witnessing extraordinary change was stimulating and enlightening, as well as disheartening and disturbing. Against often melancholy backdrops, the subtleties and layered complexities of day-to-day Cuba drew me in,” says Tria. “Cut off and isolated, the country’s cultural integrity, societal structures, and the ephemera of the Cuban Revolution seemed preserved, while its architectural legacy and infrastructure crumbled. Despite these difficulties the Cuban people possessed an astonishing spirit and resourcefulness.”
Tria worked hard to “transcend stereotypes” and “embrace the vernacular and indigenous”, to form a considered and genuine portrait of the place and people. At the time, there were very few “foreign photographers” working in Cuba, yet Tria found an openness and ease with people she encountered. “When I would ask someone if I could take their picture they would remain exactly the same, and I was able to capture the expression or stance that had stopped me originally.”
In the series, Tria captures people relaxing, dancing, at the beach and going about their day-to-day, only hinting towards the trouble they were enduring. “I photograph as a documentarian, wishing to preserve and collect, allowing time and resolve to divulge the complexities of my subject matter,” she says of her style. “I am drawn to subjects that connect me to history, anchor me in the present, and offer engagement in the external world and insight into our common humanity.”
The photographer revisited the project after remembering colour negatives had a limited shelf life. “I spent two years re-editing the images, working to preserve the original 6 × 9 colour negatives with the awareness that foreign investment, development and political changes had forever altered the landscape I captured,” says Tria. “Through the process of editing, high resolution scanning and cataloguing, a more complex view of this work as one of historical significance has emerged. Many images, previously disregarded, depict elements that no longer exist and of a Cuba poised on the brink of change.”
Tria’s images preserve a pivotal point in Cuba’s history; the Special Period radically changed Cuban society and its economy, forcing it to adopt sustainable agriculture, decrease the use of cars and generally it saw an overhaul of industry, health and diet countrywide. “This valuable and relevant record speaks not only of the importance of the medium’s inherent capability as recorder of history,” explains Tria, "but of how an artist’s perspective transforms and evolves over the arc of time.”
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