Context is crucial in documentary photography. Without sound, movement, or anything more than a short caption, the image has to say it all. Christine Blackburn’s exhibition En La Noche Del Mundo at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center (otherwise simply known as “The Center,”) falls painfully short of that goal.
The twenty-seven photographs that make up the exhibit are mostly black and white, grainy, and seem to have been chosen for their artistic merits, (which I find questionable, after all, a slow shutter speed alone does not make an art photo) rather than their photojournalistic sensibilities. Paradoxically, according to the photographer, her work “reflect[s] the current social climate for LGBT youth in Cuba,” which she describes as being “one of moderate acceptance, with the occasional repressive backlash.” Unfortunately, her images are little more than a series of snapshots of queer people in Cuba. The images speak sparsely, if at all, to the social climate, or interactions between the gay and straight communities. Any placement in a broader socio-political context is achieved through the photos’ captions; largely quotes from the subjects in the pictures, to explain the scene or the individual’s take on the gay community. Two mounted supplemental writings grace the show, the first, a poem by Norge Espinosa and the second an excerpt from “’El Mejunje’ y el Homosexual en Cuba” by Pedro Gonzalez Reinoso. It is these captions and this outside written work, that ties the exhibit together and gives the photos meaning.
Largely portraits or group shots of the “gay scene” in Cuba, the focus is clearly on gay men and drag queens, and there is only one image of gay women in the entire exhibit. To the photographer’s credit, the shots take place in the major centers of gay life in Havana: the Yara Cinema, the Malecón, La Arcada Café, and the Centro Nacional de Educacion Sexual (CENESEX. This knowledge of major gay meeting places reflects an intimate knowledge of the community, but the photos shot in these locations, however, do little to explain their function within the gay community. For example, the images at the Yara Cinema all show young people in the foliage to the right of the theater entrance. A friend who came with me to the exhibit who had never been to Havana commented it was interesting there were so many “nature shots.” The photographs completely miss the interaction of the straight movie-going attendees with the youth that use the front steps as a meeting place. The exception, and one of the best photos in the show, is of a support group at CENESEX, which depicts transvestites (language taken from the exhibit) engaged in active conversation.
The group shots in the exhibition are largely party scenes, which at the very least demonstrate that there is a thriving queer community in Havana. Unfortunately they fail to enlighten the viewer of any deeper relationships between the members of that community. One photograph in particular shows a large group at an outdoor party (presumably a fiesta de diez pesos), the lower half of the image is filled with a crowd of people with their backs to the camera. A single face twists around in a practically grotesque way to face camera. The upper half of the photograph is all fences, electrical wires and sky. All the image tells the viewer is that homosexuals in Cuba have crowded parties outside. In contrast, there is one notable two-shot of a couple dancing together at a daytime party, here Blackburn successfully captures a moment of joy between two men enjoying each other, a deep connection between the two subjects.
The rest of the exhibit is characterized by individual portrait shots, all of which are strangely formal. Paradoxically, most of these have as captions, with the subjects’ testimonials of their interactions with their families. I am tempted to say that by having them pose alone, Blackburn is illustrating their isolation from mainstream Cuban society. However, while some of the subjects do describe negative relationships with their families, others describe very positive ones, and are pictured in the same way. It would have been much more meaningful to see these individuals, regardless of their family situation, interacting with loved ones in a way that demonstrated that relationship.
The treatment of LGBT people in Cuba is historically gravely negative, and only in recent years has the community made inroads into governmental policy and social acceptance. While Christine Blackburn misses the mark with her attempt at photojournalism, I must credit her for undertaking the project in the first place, and by bringing her work back to New York, it will hopefully open the doors for activists abroad to be exposed and learn about the ongoing struggle “in our backyard.”