Steve Cagan lives in Cleveland, Ohio. He was born in New York City in 1943. HIs education was in English Literature (BA w/honors, City College) and US History (MA, Indiana University). He’s been photographing and exhibiting seriously since the mid-1970s. Major work is in what is often called documentary, but what Steve prefers to call activist or socially-engaged photography. He’s most concerned with exploring strength and dignity in everyday struggles of grassroots people resisting their pressures and problems. His avian photography is a by-product of a long-standing love of nature and birding.
Major projects have included: “Industrial Hostages,” on factory closings in Ohio; Indochina; Nicaragua; El Salvador (especially about a community that formed in a refugee camp and returned to found a new town); and Cuba (especially about the struggles of working-class people in the harsh economy after the fall of the USSR), and “Working Ohio,” an extended portrait of working people. Current major project, since 2003: “El Chocó, Colombia: Struggle for Cultural and Environmental Survival,” documenting that threatened rain forest area and the special cultures there.
Steve has exhibited and published photography on four continents. He has published reviews and critical writings in a variety of professional journals and books. Major awards include two Fulbright Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and several Ohio Arts Council Fellowships and New Jersey Arts Council Fellowships. Steve taught at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, 1985-1993.
Co-author (with his wife Beth) of This Promised Land, El Salvador, which won the 1991 Book of the Year Award of Association for Humanist Sociology. In 1991, he was named “Teacher of the Year” at Rutgers University. The third major event of that spring was being denied tenure at Rutgers.
Photographers who are concerned about social conditions in the world face some difficult responsibilities and problems that stem from the very nature of the photographic medium. Photography, more than any other medium, is bound up with image and content and makes claim to a higher level of accuracy in representation than can ever be achieved. This claim to accuracy has resulted in a confidence that both its practitioners and its viewers have placed in the medium to represent the world truthfully, which in turn has produced a belief that photographers can help us understand the world simply by making and displaying pictures.
Confidence in photography’s ability to speak the truth can create traps for photographers who use the medium to communicate about social realities. When the subjects are people who live in a culture different from that of the photographer, problems inherent in photography are compounded by issues of language, race, and class. The cultural concerns are even greater for a photographer working in Cuba, not only facing the differences in culture and language (the problem is epitomized for me when I am asked, “What do people in the U.S. eat in place of rice and beans?”), but also working in a country which has assumed an overwhelming and distorting political symbolism for nearly everyone who discusses it with passionate interest.
I don’t want to suggest that photography cannot be used to examine and communicate about the lives of real people in the real world, only that we need to pay attention to the potential dangers. Unfortunately some photographers convince themselves too easily that they have overcome all the cultural gaps. Worse, many people never even recognize that the problem is there. If we acknowledge the issues and attempt to confront them honestly and with humility we may be able to find the places where we can connect in genuine human solidarity rather than make superficial protestations that we are all the same.
In my approach to this work I have been affected by a potent combination of desire to be supportive of movements for progressive social and political change; a growing sense of the importance of openness and objectivity even in partisan environments; and post-modern theory, especially its challenge of “neutrality” or “objectivity” in media or social science. As a result, I am convinced of the possibility and the necessity of “engaged scholarship” and “engaged journalism.” (Even though I know that there are people who find these phrases oxymoronic or even offensive.)
Cuba presents a particularly difficult and useful challenge to someone who wants to be both supportive and critical, engaged and objective. An overwhelming burden of symbolic importance has been placed on this country by both the right and the left. It is virtually impossible to take a complex and balanced position without first running up against one’s own ideological predispositions and then being roundly attacked by everyone who has an ideological or political stake in the discussion, both those who support the revolutionary government and those who oppose it. But it is important for that very reason to make the effort.
Most material produced about Cuba employs one of two general approaches. The first deals in grand terms with political or economic issues—the future of Fidel Castro; the politics of the U. S. blockade; the meaning of foreign investments; counterrevolutionary espionage or sabotage, or espionage on behalf of the revolution; the “new world order.” Whether supportive or critical, most of this material employs descriptions of ordinary people only to bolster arguments about policy questions. It ignores issues of daily life, the arena where much of the real significance of the Cuban experience, both positive and negative, is to be found.
The second approach presents an image of a Cuba that is hungry and isolated, either arguing that this is the result of a generation of communist tyranny and inefficiency, or showing Cuba as a little David, suffering as a consequence of the U. S. blockade and the fall of the socialist camp, confronting the Goliath of the north. Either way, this approach tends to reduce real life to ideological symbolism and to employ images of an idealized stereotype of the “Cuban,” rather than examining the daily lives of working people.
These approaches express some important and useful insights, but they present only partial views of Cuban social reality. Moreover, when assumed by foreigners they represent a perspective of outsiders looking in, rarely including the viewpoints of the Cuban people.
Between 1993 and 1997 I had the good fortune to make six visits to Cuba. Two of these trips were made to assist in the production of videotapes, and from those visits grew a desire to explore some of what I found interesting and surprising there. Like most people in the U.S., I had seen in the press and even in cultural production in this country nothing but images of economic hardship and doubt, products of the so-called special period—the period of economic and social difficulties caused by the collapse of the Soviet bloc. As a result, one of the things that most struck me was the simple fact of many people working and struggling to maintain a dignified life and a viable family environment. In the midst of crisis and uncertainty, at the level of normal working people, I found a surprising amount of what looked like normalcy.
Based on those experiences, and on a new network of extensive contacts with administrators and workers, academics and journalists, and people I have come to know as neighbors and friends in the areas where I stay, I began to develop a documentary project about the ordinary lives of Cubans.
My initial impulse was to document work itself, so the first steps were organized around functioning workplaces. I managed to make extended visits (days at a time and repeated several times) to two different factories, an agricultural cooperative, and a major construction project. By spending significant amounts of time without guides and without an agenda I was able to understand something about the rhythm of life and work in those places and, more importantly, to become friendly with some of the workers and known to many of them.
Soon my interest shifted to a closer examination of several families of workers, and I have begun to document daily life among those folks over time—although for me it’s impossible to completely avoid working in the surrounding streets as well.
I’ve been interested in exploring the ways critical issues in the “special period” are experienced at the grassroots level—shortages of foods and other basic goods, reductions in real income, insecurity about employment, as well as changes in the laws governing private economic activity and other challenges to socialist orthodoxy. The work I’ve done so far only scratches the surface of these complex issues. I see what I’ve done to date as the initial steps toward a much more extensive project of presenting the lives of the people I’ve come to know in these environments.
In the meantime, I try to minimize the power inequalities between photographer and subjects in this work. By establishing relationships with the people I photograph I have attempted to avoid the “paratrooper” mentality and practice so common in documentary photography—the tendency to jump into a scene, quickly take some pictures, and leave just as abruptly. Indeed, some of the subjects became friends. I have also come to see environmental portraiture as useful in addressing the power issue. As these kinds of images have the virtue of allowing a sort of shared gaze between subject, photographer, and viewer. Invited by the open gaze of the subjects, the viewer can look at them intently over time—not to steal a look, but to engage.
Photography by itself can only impart a rather limited amount of information, and we need to provide contextual support for more informed readings. I hope that the openness of the subjects, the range of moods and ideas their expressions suggest, and visual and emotional engagement with them will provide the viewers a kind of door which they may pass through, and in doing so, demand more information to help understand what we share and how we differ from one another.
The extent to which I achieve that goal can be judged by the reactions of viewers. If the people who look at these images are stimulated to engage at some level with the people in the pictures, if they decide they need to learn more or to act in some positive way—that is, if they decide to pass through that door, then I believe I will have accomplished something.
Steve Cagan ©1999
Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, Cuba lost the majority of its commerce and economic aid from it’s once powerful ally. Cuba has been passing through what its leadership refers to as “the special period” where its people have been asked to make tremendous personal sacrifices in order to preserve their way of life. The expression “no es fácil” (it’s not easy) became a popular slogan among the Cuban people during this time of economic difficulty and political change. The title for this exhibition, No es fácil/It’s Not Easy, has a dual meaning in that it also refers to Steve Cagan’s own acknowledgment of the difficulty of working in Cuba as a U.S. photographer.
The extremes with which Cuba is represented in the media range from portrayals of a country whose citizens want to flee Communist oppression, to a Caribbean paradise tourists want to visit, to a small country desperately stuggling to maintain its socialist indentity against unceasing pressure from the United States. The emphasis of Cagan’s photographs are the lives of everyday Cuban citizens, and for many of us these images may provide the first window into the lives of the ordinary citizen. Cagan’s images to do not assume the pretense of neutrality, he is very clear about his intentions and motivations as a photographer. Cagan is a political activist for social change and for the rights of workers in his personal and professional life, and for him photography functions as a powerful tool to increase awareness and inspire change.
Cagan is a member of the cooperative photo agency Impact Visuals, whose members are dedicated to social change, but even the socially conscious photographer risks their work being taken out of the context or misrepresented in its viewing or presentation. Many photographers who define themselves as documentarians or photojournalists have limited control over the final presentation of their work which can—in the process of cropping, editing, or juxtaposing with other images or text—alter the reading of the image. This is a greater problem for the subjects of the photograph who have even less control over their image. Cagan’s photographs are intended as a collaboration between photographer and subject, granting them a degree of respect they are usually not afforded. In creating these images the photographer spent a considerable period of time in the workplaces and homes of his subjects before photographing them, allowing his subjects to reveal something of themselves to the camera—their apprehensions, opinions, their ability to endure and even prosper.
Prior to the 1959 revolution, Cuba was the playground for the rich where any indulgence was permitted. It was also a haven for organized crime, corrupt politicians, and an exploitable resource for North American businesses. The revolution fractured the Cuban people, forcing many to flee the country, but the majority of the population remained to embrace the Communist government of Fidel Castro. It was the majority of Cubans who had previously lived under conditions of severe poverty that reaped the benefits of the revolution, particularly in the areas of education and health care. Everyday life is not easy during this “special period,” but most Cubans accept these conditions because they feel that the gains which have been made since the revolution, are worth preserving, even though today Cuba find itself virtually alone in the world in its attempts to maintain a socialist society.
“For better or worse, this is who we are and what we are doing. It’s not up to you to change us or to tell us how to live.” This is the predominate message Cagan has received from the many Cubans he has come to know and consider his friends, and he believes that it may be best expressed in the lyrics of a song by Carlos Puebla: “Nuestro vino es de plátano, nuestro vino/Aunque sale amargo, es nuestro vino.” “Our wine is made from bananas, our wine/And even if it comes out bitter, it’s our wine.”
Associate Director, Light Work
This work would not have been possible without the help of the Centro de Prensa Internacional and the Unión de Periodistas de Cuba, who made the arrangements for my visits to workplaces, and who were open enough to understand my need for longer stays than most people ask for. The Cubans and resident foreigners who helped are too numerous to mention, but the kind of work I’m doing depends entirely on the understanding, patience, and support of subjects and friends.
My ability to do this work was materially aided by generous project support from the Ohio Arts Council. Finally, I’d like to thank the staff of Light Work for offering me the opportunity to make the initial prints of many of these images as an Artist-in-Residence, and for their support and useful criticism and suggestions throughout the process, and to Lisa Jong-Soon Goodlin for copyediting this issue of Contact Sheet.
For Beth: Tiernamente llegabas hasta el fondo/donde cae la careta y surge el miedo/me arrebatas mi historia/mis tinieblas, para darme la luz de los que piensan.
Steve Cagan, 1999