Finding Home in Havana

If you have to travel halfway across the world to make an interesting picture, you’re probably not an artist. That’s what I tell people who show me their photographs of sweet-faced children, careworn workers, and colorfully dressed celebrants from some other region, some other culture. It’s easy enough to capture the surface differences between people and their ways of life and it’s easy enough to project meaning onto them based on our own perceptions, assumptions, or cravings. But it is difficult indeed to use the camera to show what’s underneath that surface of difference, difficult to use it to show something that feels more true about the subject than about the viewer, difficult to locate something individual that is also shared. Maybe it is only possible to reveal something that is true for both the subject and the viewer, something we have in common about being human.

Photographing in Havana on several visits, Patricia Galagan was duly seduced by the city’s visual appeal, a feature that has made it a popular destination for American photographers in recent decades. Her street views show the Cuban capital’s extraordinary juxtapositions of opulence and decay, exuberance and restraint, searing light and suggestive shadows. Her photographs of vendors begin to explore what makes this city and its residents tick, and her shots of interior spaces search still deeper into the spirit of this long-sheltered place. Adding to this multi-part portrait of Havana is Galagan’s series Objects of Desire, in which the artist relinquishes her role as an observer and more actively engages with her subjects.

To create this group of portraits, the artist invited individuals to be photographed in their familiar surroundings and to include something of personal significance in the photograph. Like the attributes of saints – St. Francis and his birds, St. Isidore and his plow – our earthly possessions are markers for who we are, the visible manifestations of what is most cherished. Don’t we all have treasures that light up our world because of what they represent? Whatever our daily circumstances, these objects are reliquaries for our memories and our dreams, offering tangible evidence of our distinctiveness and thereby binding us together in the commonality of our desire to be special.

By having her subjects choose what to display, the artist opens up a channel for communication and understanding, a pathway of connection between her and them, between them and us. One possible cultural difference that readily emerges in the portraits is that many of the participants selected another person or animal to be in the picture, not an object. And several of the objects chosen are pictures of people. Is it the result of Galagan’s subjects having little in the way of material possessions? Is the result of a culture that values family and personal relationships more deeply than material goods? Any answer I come up with is laden with my own personal and cultural biases. Yet the images resonate with a powerful sense of attachment and connection that I recognize. I don’t know these people or their lives but I know these feelings.

My ancestors, my faith, my occupation, my neighborhood, my collection, my companions; by sharing these precious things I show you who I am and who I want to be. We are here for just a while and we want it to mean something. The steps I walk to the kitchen, my love for you, the trust of a child, all these things have changed the world a little bit, all these things have mattered, regardless of what else is going on in the world. In Havana and in Portland and in Santa Fe, these are the things that make a life for all of us. And in that case, it’s okay to go all the way to Cuba to remind us that the most important objects of desire are right here at home.

Katherine Ware, Curator of Photography[br]New Mexico Museum of Art[br]April 2014