In Walker Evans: A Biography, by Belinda Rathbone (Mariner Books, 2000), the photographer expresses the compulsion to document life. “It’s as though there’s a wonderful secret in a certain place and I can capture it…. Only I, at this moment, can capture it, and only this moment and only me.”
Everything is about timing.
The best documentarians, caught up in a singular experience in a defining moment, find themselves compelled to shoot by instinct. For Tria Giovan, that moment came in 1990 when she first traveled to Cuba and discovered “a country teetering on some indefinable precipice.” There on a two-week trip arranged through the Center for Cuban Studies, a New York-based organization that first began leading journeys to Cuba in 1973, Giovan discovered a place of unexpected physical and social accessibility. “You could literally walk into someone’s home and feel totally welcomed,” she recalls. “I would ask someone if I could photograph them, and they’d say, ‘yes,’ and literally not change a thing. My first day in Havana, I shot one quarter of the film I’d brought with me. There was something familiar yet somehow profound, a vibrancy and sophistication that was unexpected. I knew this was poised to change and I would have to go back.”
Giovan did go back, again and again. Over the next six years, she took 12 monthlong trips, making over 25,000 images. Her work culminated in the collection Cuba: The Elusive Island/La Isla Ilusiva (Abrams,1996).
More than 20 years later, Giovan has returned to the thousands of photographs she took of 1990s Cuba to once again compile a book, Tria Giovan: The Cuba Archive (Damiani, 2017). The photographic series is also showcased in Cuba Is, an exhibition on view through March 4, 2018 at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. The photographs offer historical documentation of a specific moment in the island nation’s history — “a period that no longer exists,” says Giovan. Her considered portrait of the country and its people documents Cuba’s período especial (“Special Period”), a time of austerity, as Soviet subsidies diminished and foreign investments had not begun.
A fascination with decay, with places uneasily poised somewhere between existence and oblivion, has always motivated Giovan. From 1987 to 1989, the New York City-based photographer captured the synagogues, tenements, factories and schools on the city’s transitional Lower East Side. “Walking by these great old buildings, I kept wondering what was inside. The work was about inaccessibility and the mystery of not knowing what was behind those great old facades.”
It was this pull to parts unknown that first drew Giovan to Cuba. A Virgin Islands native, she was looking for a place in the Caribbean that had not been inundated with the development and homogenization she’d witnessed firsthand growing up. Intrigued by a National Geographic article on Old Havana architecture, she took that fateful first trip. “Cold air seeps through the leaking seals of the no-longer-pressurized cabin windows of the ancient Cuban airplane,” she writes in The Cuba Archive. “En route from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, I am fascinated and curious about everything I see below. Lone Ceiba trees dot the open cane fields, a sugar factory belches a black plume. White-sand beaches and mangrove swamps trace coastlines and archipelagos. Empty highways thread through a crazy quilt of towns, villages and farms.… If I die now — not entirely out of the question considering the condition of the plane — I will be okay with it, for this is the adventure of a lifetime.”