Photo Books

Rose Marie Cromwell Breaks With Stereotypical Cuba Depictions in Her New Book

June 22, 2018

By Jon Feinstein

Pink 1950s cars, peeling paint and covetable cigars are just a few of the photography clichés commonly associated with Cuba, whose charged political history, colorful culture and architecture are a huge attraction for visual tourists. A quick internet search for “photography excursions Cuba,” for example, displays more than 700,000 results with language describing it as a “photographer’s dreamland” alongside outsider recommendations for “hotspots,” “finding friendly locals” and “tips to capture its people before things change.”

Rose Marie Cromwell’s latest book, El Libro Supremo de la Suerte (TIS Books), translated as “The Supreme Book of Luck,” breaks these stereotypes with a mysterious, non-linear series that combines both staged and documentary images with photographs of small, photocopied booklets of La Charada, a Cuban-Chinese number system that Cubans use to play the lottery. The culmination of nearly a decade digging below Cuba’s familiar surface, the book pays tribute to Cuba, not as an idealized site of yesteryear or an under-resourced country, but as a mysterious place that’s shaped Cromwell’s photographic process and, ultimately, her own maturation.

Cromwell began the project in 2007 as a documentary story about her visits to Havana with her friend Milagros, a native of the city. She was initially drawn to Cuba from her involvement in the late ’90s with progressive political activism. Her first pictures were straightforward and not unlike everyone else’s distant, idealized photos of the country. Over time, to better align her work with her personal experience and her realization of Cuba’s political and cultural complexities, she began staging photographs, asking subjects to perform for the camera to recreate memories she had once jotted down. “The Cleansing,” for example, shows one person washing another’s hands, a performance recreating a personal experience Rose had with her brother when he visited her during one of her extended trips. There’s an intimate, almost religious quality in this image—two hands outstretched while another hangs into the frame pouring the water—a sense of vulnerability and communion. Viewing it years later, it could also be interpreted as a symbol of Cromwell’s own coming of age.

© Rose Marie Cromwell

An image from Rose Marie Cromwell’s new book, which presents a highly personal view of Cuba that digs deeper than typical documentary images of the oft-photographed country. © Rose Marie Cromwell

“Perhaps this shift [from documentary to staged imagery] marked a change between considering myself a documentarian and creating a more personal, emotional narrative of place…” Cromwell tells PDN via email. “I work within the confines of a specific geography; however, my work subverts the documentary tradition.” For Cromwell, Cuba isn’t a landscape and culture for her to capture. Instead, it’s a stage where she can explore mythologies and metaphors and relate them to her own life experience.

The biggest shift in the work happened when Cromwell noticed Milagros playing the underground lottery every day. Her friend’s strategy for winning was to pair numbers with a list of specific symbols that appear in small coded notebooks, photos of which appear throughout Cromwell’s book. “She would use La Charada,” Rose explains, “to help her find relevant numbers. If a butterfly flew into her kitchen that morning, she might play 2, which signified Butterfly.” In La Charada, these numbers and images have a never-ending set of meanings and relationships, and many players believe that winning is just a matter of identifying them in everyday life. Cromwell soon noticed a parallel between Millagros’ image-matching process and her own methods for creating photographs. “I was mining the everyday objects or occurrences for greater significance and elevating my finds by photographing them,” Cromwell says.

There’s an interplay between straightforward, literal images, and darker, lyrical tableaux. In one image, a woman with bright red lipstick looks up, eyes closed in near-religious bliss. In another, a dog lifts its front paw while looking at the ground, inspecting its shadow. In another, two men, buried to the waist in sand lock arms from behind. “Some images were pre-conceived and performed,” says Cromwell, “but I was also looking for performance in the everyday. Some that appear to be more ‘street’ photographs, could be ones that I mused over for months before making.” For Cromwell, this range of visual approaches allows her camera to become its own character in her meandering story.

© Rose Marie Cromwell

To reference her personal experiences in Cuba, Cromwell staged images based on her memories of things that she saw or that happened to her. © Rose Marie Cromwell

Like the numbers in La Charada, Cromwell’s seemingly random images—even the most mundane—are aflame with symbolism. In one photograph, “In the Market,” a sunlit white sheet draped over a wooden trough is pulled back to uncover a pile of tomatoes. While it’s a scene one might commonly overlook, it appears to offer a clue for understanding something wild and unfathomable. In another image, “Blood Brothers,” shot from above, the photographer’s eye peers down a purple-painted alleyway on two men tenderly embracing. We know little about who these men are or the nature of their relationship, and this mystery is what gives the scene, and so many other images in the book, their strength.

While the images are compelling on their own, the association with numbers and the book’s carefully considered edit drives their weight and meaning most significantly. “When editing the book,” says Cromwell, “I chose different numbers [associated with La Charada] to help create a narrative. Some, I had a personal attachment to, but I wanted to create tension without a linear story.” She found inspiration in the work of Cuban writers such as Reinaldo Arenas and Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, who use short chapters and vignettes to create metaphors that inform the larger narratives in their work. “The numbers function” in Cromwell’s book, she says, to create “a point of departure for the images that follow,” a sort of key for the reader.

The work took on many forms over the seven years Cromwell spent photographing Havana. She often felt it was complete, only to notice a new metaphor she wanted to explore, leading her to evolve her process along the way. “When I began editing the work to be a book, I recognized there were some holes in the narrative and I made a point to fill them in. This work was made from a specific time and place in my life. My mode of making work has changed, my community in Havana has changed, and Havana has changed. It felt like it was time to move on.” For Cromwell, the book brings closure to nearly a decade of personal and photographic evolution. It departs from the Cuba we expect to see in didactic photojournalism and tourist photography, in favor of something deeper and more nuanced in its ambiguity.

Want more PDN? Click here to sign up for our email newsletter and get the week’s top stories delivered straight to your inbox.

How a Freelance Photo Researcher Finds Photographers

Juan Giraldo’s “Blue & Blue” Explores Family, Work and the Immigrant Experience

Cig Harvey: Through Mother’s Eyes