The Walls of Habana Vieja


Modern Habana is a city of paradox, of perplexing combinations of wealth and poverty, of the new and the raw and the old and decayed. It is a city of many smaller communities united by familial links, political allegiances, the presence of church and priest or the tribal loyalties to soccer, baseball and local boxing teams

The city abounds with simple pleasures eked out, rationed because of fifty years of economic sanction that might well have soothed the souls of some members of the international community but have failed to dim the irrepressible spirit to be found in the old centre of the city – of Habana Vieja.

This zone of some thirty urban blocks is the core of the historical Habana, wedged between harbour and the ridgeline to the west where the newer zones are to be found. Habana Vieja is a UNESCO heritage space. It is supposed to be ‘protected’. Its heritage comprises the grand old mansions, office buildings, old churches, convents and schools.  It is the area once dominated by the colonial elite from Spain, the mafia dons from the USA and the corrupt flotsam of the 1930’s – 1950’s Batista era. Interspersed in this vast collection of 1850’s to 1950’s Spanish suburban architecture there is the occasional post 1950’s style art deco driven building established just prior to the revolution. With the advent of Castroism this area, which was claimed by the revolutionaries to be a cultural blight on Cuban society, was given over to public housing. People were drawn to it, or allocated to it, as part of the redistribution process that accompanies any revolution.


So, for the last fifty years the area has been residential public housing with some low scale vending. It is now public property although there is some evidence that housing projects are beginning to address the decades of neglect. Essentially, a housing project seems to mean transferring people out of the area when a building either collapses or is condemned. It appears to be a rather ad hoc and piecemeal response from the central government with an eye on this inner urban area’s re-development potential as Cuba transitions from a communist planned economic system to a Marxist style exchange system akin to that of China. The latter seems to be very influential in Cuba.


Since the revolution little has changed, in a physical sense, in Habana Vieja. It is a borderline ruin. Well, to the superficial eye of the fly in and fly out tourist photographer this is most certainly the case.  From my observation such folk are usually preoccupied by the novelty of this space and have the propensity to shape and distort that which they experienced by sundry ‘photo shopping’ of images to a point of visual exhaustion informed by varying levels of creative constipation. The point and shoot brigade can go feral as street after street exhibits the decay of neglect and the real cost of the economic sanctions. Gaggles of ancient cars await the camera with owner-drivers strategically positioned to offer a ride or seek a dollar. Vendors ply their wares and children laugh and play in the streets not really knowing, I suspect, that they are part of a broader geopolitic that gave them a marginalised world to live in.

I cannot be too critical of this penchant for the tourist photographer to ‘grab’ their memory shots, walking down the streets pointing cameras at the quaint, the novel, and the circumstances they cannot ‘see’ at home, and behaving with a crassness that defies description.

To be an effective communicator with any text you, the author, must be aware.  Too often, I feel, the tourist photographer replaces awareness with a sense of urgency to get ‘the shot’ that they can manipulate within the comfort of their home – so far away from this Habana Hell.


Their trophy photo often seems uninformed by any understanding of the causation at work- of awareness. Of cause and effect. Why it is that Habana is so idiosyncratic.  I have heard them say, “I gave him a dollar and he put the cigar in his mouth, great shot.” Or, “The *&^% kids would not let me take their photograph without a dollar.” Or, “Quick Sam, get the beggar, “ as if the beggar was some escapee from a dystopic movie.

I am guilty myself of succumbing to the excitement and the exhilaration of seeing something new, different or profound and simply trying to document this. In real terms there is nothing wrong with this if that is what you seek to do, to be, to use your craft skills as a photographer. Owning a very expensive camera, state of the art accessories and a specialist digital media suite in one’s home does not make you aware. It does not offer you inspiration or ideas, it will not offer interpretation or aid in effective representation of the imagined vision that a photographer must have to be worthy of that title. Owning a camera does not make a photographer. Vision is critical and vision informed by awareness is vital for effective visual communication.


However, I want more from my photography than to be just another travel/tourist photographer.  I want to make legacy images – images that are evocative and leave imprinted on the audience a ‘memory’.…..a  visual legacy.

I seek an image that moves the audience to ask the ‘why’, the ‘what’ and the ‘so what’ questions. To make images that provokes both an intellectual and emotional response from the viewer. I do not want to simply point and shoot. That can be done by anybody. I do not want to be an anybody.

If you want an image to evoke intellectual and emotional responses then you as a photographer must also experience them too. You cannot ask your audience to do that which you are not able to do.


So, walking morning noon and night through Habana Vieja I pondered, what does this place really mean to me?   What does it mean to the visitors sitting in clean and comfortable restaurants just metres from the urban detritus of the Vieja?  What does it mean to the old timers sitting on their doorsteps smoking cigars framed by the shade darken narrow laneways?  Or to the youngsters playing hopscotch in the litter filled streets, their laughter competing with the soft murmur of conversations through open windows and the sound of a distant clarinet speaking the blues.  What was the real story of Habana Vieja? My imperfect answer is in the many images I made but represented by just a few here.

The real story –the real meaning of Habana Vieja was in the walls. The buildings offered a story, an explanation. Their facades, built on the edge of the pavements, revealed a two-century-old narrative of human occupation, of serial exploitation by external and now internal imperial forces. The walls told stories of those that lived behind them, passed by them. They were journals of decay, dearth, denial and decline.


For the tourist photographer, they were eloquent patterns of line, colour, space and texture. I tried to use my camera to scratch the surface of these walls to reveal their message. What I saw was a warning, a cry and a plea. The walls said,

Take care.

Please help.

Do not let this happen to your world.

Then I had a small drink of Cuban rum and somehow the walls did not matter anymore.

In Habana Vieja all that matters is survival. Get the tourist with the camera before they get you.