That adds a whole other aspect of intimacy because now you are essentially friends with the people you’re meeting. What did you take away from the experience?
It was a very rich experience for me. In el campo, I developed this fantasy that I was part of their family, which was not true, but I loved to imagine I was part of the family!
The last night I was in el campo in November 2009, I was saying goodbye to everybody and I was delivering my last book. They had a new sheriff in the valley and he drove this very expensive new motorcycle. I’m walking with a couple whom I’m very familiar with, I had just given them the book, and this new sheriff decided he needed to make his presence known. Fortunately, the family hid the book, they didn’t show it. That would have caused a big problem. The sheriff took my passport, he asked me a lot of questions. I just speak basic Spanish, but I knew enough to know what was going on at the time. He sort of detained me for about an hour. I wasn’t upset because I knew he couldn’t arrest me for anything.
When he left, the buzz spread through the valley like lightning. He actually went house to house, he drove his motorcycle house to house and asked everybody who I was. The woman I was staying with in the farmhouse, as I approached that place, all her shutters were closed. I approached the door and she pulled me inside very quickly. At that time, the campesinos said to me, “Oh, Susan, if you get in trouble we’re gonna back you up.” Well, I would like to believe that, but I doubt it!
What would have happened if he had known that you had done this book?
I expect he would have taken the book away because it showed pictures of the reality of that place, which I’m sure the government really doesn’t want people to know this. I think it was a form of harassment. I’d been harassed in the city before by police.
I did not realize this during the whole time I worked in el campo – and I’d go three, four times a year and spend a few weeks at a time – I did not know this at the time, but I was being followed by the authorities who had no uniforms on and they were riding bicycles. They could not understand why this woman kept returning to this place.
You stayed at the farm with the workers?
Yes, I did. They have a resort built by the Cubans for their short vacations, it’s really a dump, I would say. They have 10 rooms reserved for people like me, outsiders, and the rest of the little huts in these other buildings are reserved for Cuban vacationers. The difference between the two places is astounding.
It’s called “Campismo.” I would sign up there, I’d pay my little fee and maybe leave a few little things in my room. And then at 11 o’clock at night, people would come by with this horse and put all this luggage on the horse and take me to Ana’s house where I stayed. I was more ready to work early if I stayed in her house.
When you went there, did you already have the book in mind?
I never considered a book. I had a very nice exhibition in 2004 at the Fototeca in Havana, which is the main photography center in all of Cuba. When I came back, I showed my mentor, Ricardo Viera, from Lehigh University. He’s a Cuban-American and has an amazing collection of Latin-American photography in the university. I showed him my portfolio and right away he said, “This is a book.” And I said, “Really?” I had no design, and this was only in 2004 so I continued working there and added works that I wanted to be in the book.
The whole process was very interesting. I self-published my first one and I loved the control. The designer had never designed a book before, I had never done a book before. The second book, the Havana book, was a very, very different experience. I had, I think, three publishers who wanted to publish the book. The company that printed my first book offered to publish the second book, “Piercing the Darkness.” It was a very different experience. I still have a lot of control. The problem in publishing a book is that the author can easily lose control. I am pretty particular, so I was able to keep control with both books.
The campo book was unusual because at that point nobody had done a monograph on life in the Cuban countryside. You know Ernesto Bazan? He worked a lot on el campo and after a certain time he published a book on it. It was different because it was in color and he worked in a different valley. With Havana, so many books have been published about Havana. Absolute overload.