Spotlight: Jaime Permuth Explores Cuba's Historical Moment

By David Schonauer   Monday November 13, 2017

It was a tipping point.

In November 2014, New York-based fine-art photographer Jaime Permuth  was invited to La Fototeca de Cuba's Month of Photography event to present his monograph Yonkeros, a collection of photographs documenting the working lives and landscape of the Willets Point junkyards in New York City.

“More than a little giddy with anticipation, I meticulously chose and prepared my photographic gear for the trip,” Permuth recalls. “I packed a single bag, which would allow me the greatest freedom of movement on the ground. Given a hectic end-of-year schedule, I decided to stay on the island for a total ten days, just long enough to get a sense of people and place. On the eve of my journey out, the Cuban government finally approved an educational visa for me. Having secured my visa at the zero hour, I then hastily threw some clothing into a suitcase and made my way to the airport.”

Permuth’s excitement at traveling to Cuba was, in a sense, born in his own youth. “I grew up in Guatemala during that country’s decades-long civil war and endured arduous years of repressive military dictatorships. Communism was a taboo subject. In particular, Cuba and Nicaragua were rarely discussed. And when they were, it was rarely without a heavy dose of ironic or sarcastic commentary,” he says. “As a young adult,” he adds, “I strived to fill in some of the cultural gaps and omissions left over from my teenage years. As such, I fell in love with the Cuba.”

A week after Permuth returned to New York City, President Barack Obama announced a new initiative to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. “This momentous declaration lent an additional sense of urgency to my photographs,” he says. “I felt as if I was reporting back on the end of an era.” He has since made other trips to Cuba, building on the photographic series he calls “Before the Eclipse.” The work was named a winner of the Latin American Fotografía 5 competition.

“The challenge for any photographer visiting a place for the first time is getting past the surface veneer of things,” says Permuth, who we Profiled  in 2016. “In Cuba that’s tougher than in most places. For one thing, the surface is overwhelming and hypnotic. For another, there is ‘Jineteo’ – or what the locals call the art of the hustle. Literally, it means “riding” somebody to profit from their naiveté or kindness. This practice, like prostitution, is fairly ubiquitous in Havana. As a foreigner, your presence never goes unnoticed and your steps produce a ripple effect like a stone dropping into water. The smallest gestures stand in for overtures to complex negotiations: a pause in your stride, a hesitant smile, holding somebody’s gaze for a moment.”

At night, he notes, this sensation is amplified. “Probably because the heat can become unbearably oppressive in summer, residents of Centro Habana habitually leave every door and window open,” Permuth says. “One might say the inner has become the outer: entire families gathering over dinner, a widow watching soaps on TV, lovers having a quarrel, an empty room full of family photographs, all of it is in plain view. Like a Magritte painting, the city is a woman laid out naked on a table.”

The historic moment that Permuth captured was like a window opening. But he came to realize it might not stay open.

“I have been reluctant to go back to Cuba since Donald Trump was elected President,” he says. “By now it should be fairly obvious to everybody that Trump’s policies are driven by a single motor — to erase the legacy, indeed the Presidency, of his predecessor. And Cuba is no exception. I shudder to think of the hurt and sense of betrayal the citizens of that country are feeling at this moment towards America. After the bitterness of a half a century of estrangement, a renascent friendship and the hopes for a better future have been dashed by Trump’s policy reversal.”

Permuth says he will probably return to the island within the next year. “But I wonder if I will be greeted by the unfurling smiles of Cubans dressed like American flags or wearing New York logos on baseball caps and t-shirts. Probably not,” he says. “I will, however, as I always do, take a moment to fire up a fine Cohiba or Montecristo and watch the waking dream of Havana roll by from my favorite perch on the Malecón. There are few pleasures in life that compare to that.”


No comments yet.

Sign in to leave a comment. Don't have an account? Join Now

Dispatches from Latin America