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North Bound, Beyond the Blue Wall

North Bound, Beyond the Blue Wall (Exodus 1994)



North Bound, Beyond the Blue Wall

By Willy Castellanos


In the beginning, there was the Sea. An enormous dense mass of blue limbo. First pale, then azure, sometimes turquoise or else simply blue, extremely blue. Within it, coolness and lightness. Outside of it, the searing sun, the breeze and the uncomfortable feeling of salt residue on one’s skin. For those of us born in the port city of Havana, and perhaps for almost every Cuban, the sea is an obsessive constant. Every day, we walk toward or away from the sea, parallel to the coast, toward the estuary or simply across the bay –that other, strange sea, tiny ocean and forest of cranes, timely shelter of old barges and swarms of pedestrians and tourists. The sea surround and define us. Its omnipresent aroma becomes entrenched in our memory. The sea limits us, the sea wall is in…, the Blue Wall.

Then, there are the ships than dock and cast off, vessels of every kind. Cuba is “The Key to the Caribbean”, a necessary stop, a point of departure, a crossroad opens to all destinations. North, south, east, all of them. People who come and go. Spanish Caravels, English masts and canons, slavers and pirate ships. Steamships packed with Europeans; foul holds crammed with Asians. American cruise ships, Soviet freighters, torpedo cutters, border patrol boats and also…, rafts. Slight and fragile, made of old planks and tattered sails. Rowing and riptides, Blessed Virgins and holy cards. Rafts that break through the wall on the foamy crests of waves, some on top, under the searing sun, in the breeze, the uncomfortable feeling of salt residue on one’s skin. Others, underneath, in the cool and lightness, in the Blue Limbo. Rafts that set out without a return ticket, too little island for so much searching, too many dreams for so much sea.

Lastly, the photographic devise and the individual –the Operator. The former gulps down, like a bathtub drain, the different instants of reality. One after the other, in single file, they are drawn into the tunnel of the lens. Behind the device –the metallic shield- the individual, the photographer, hides. His postcards prove nothing, only that he was there, at the scene, and that through them he tried to establish and emotional link with reality. Everything blurs together with time. Foiling oblivion, a few traces remain: the lingering smell of the sea, a mixture of seashells, stars and other tinges that the fish have allowed to escape. The voices of people saying goodbye, the noise creaking planks, the memory of the costal breeze and its caresses, but above all, the omnipresent color of that dense mass, the blue limbo.

December 1998 | Bahía Blanca, Argentina

Reference I

Exodus: A Missing Page in History

(Text from the Exhibition Catalog | PhotoAmerica, 2012)         


By Adriana Herrera

The images shown in Exodus: A missing Page in History, are endowed with the power to shock that documentary material attains when, challenging the hegemonic, it recounts big history from perspectives which differ from those of power and its discourses, but which are closer to the forgotten epic of a people’s history: a much more real vision of the destinies of common people, reinventing their own lives.  

Castellanos was faced with the dilemma of whether or not to record the stampede of the multitudes that in 1994, turned lots, sidewalks and beaches in Havana into improvised boatyards where they built rubber rafts, ropes and rags which they carried on carts, bicycles or on their shoulders to the coast, from where they ventured out into the sea without the government preventing them from traveling northward.

Despite the precariousness of the materials available at that time, during the Special Period, and without being deterred by the impossibility to exhibit, he chose to be a witness. And producing day after day the photographic documentation of that exodus of which he knew he must provide recorded evidence; he crossed an unusual frontier in the history of documentary work in the island. For this reason, critic Juan Antonio Molina states: “If a photographic practice deserves being called post-documentary in the Cuban context, such practice is precisely the one that Willy Castellanos engaged in during that summer of 1994.”

Exodus documents the exhaustion of the last utopia of the 20th century, and it reconstructs, in the manner of a montage, sequences that include the construction of the rafts, the rites of farewell, and the moment when a wandering crowd assumes the leading role in the epic of the departure that marks a sort of end of its history, without any certainty about the possibility of a new beginning. 

The images contain the extreme vulnerability of the characters in Gericault’s The Raft (of the Medusa). But they also contain the unlikely hope of a portion of humankind ready to reach, whatever the cost, a new territory where life can flourish. 

In this sense, Exodus is also the chronicle of a wound that remains open, and it refers us to all those who at this very moment, in any part of our Blue Planet, are also traveling northward, struggling against the winds of emigration.

Reference II

“La Pira” (or the Removal of Metaphor)

(Essay for the book in process Exodus 1994)         


By Juan Antonio Molina

It was almost noon when I went out in a van with some friends to collect artworks on exhibition in La Cabaña Hall at the Havana Biennial. We rounded the bend at Castillo de La Fuerza and saw an unusual gathering on the esplanade. We asked what was going on, and a distressed lanky black man responded nervously: "La pira, asere, la pira." [1] It was August 5, 1994. Hours later the streets of Havana would be the scene of a Sui generis protest in all but Fidel Castro’s half century in power.

The violent protests known as the "Maleconazo" would be one of the triggers during which, for a few weeks, the Cuban Government ceased to go after people attempting to reach Florida on homemade boats and rafts. For the first time, the fact of building a raft, and using it to leave freely to the United States, was not a covert and isolated act, but a public and collective one. Viewing the photos shot by Willy Castellanos, one may think that given the open and public nature of the exodus, an equally free photographic documentation would ensue; but the truth is that Cuba's official media never published images of the rafters, and to date, there is no compilation as comprehensive as the one presented no in this book. [2]

In the summer of 1994, Willy Castellanos was a budding photographer, who had recently graduated in Art History from the University of Havana with a thesis on the Nude Photography in Cuba (one of the few academic contributions then to the discussions on this topic). His research had led him to become acquainted with some of the most eminent authors of his generation: Marta María Pérez, René Peña, and Juan Carlos Alom. His aesthetic sensibility and education reinforced his affinity towards artistic photography, but a vocation for documentary photography was always there. The latter would surface when he decided to shoot the so-called "rafter crisis."

His photos on these events were not commissioned by any international agency or Cuban government institution. His approach to the facts was entirely personally and professionally motivated. He did not represent the image of "the others" in the sense, in which neither photojournalism nor photography with an anthropological approach, usually does. Shooting this mass exodus was a form of participation. Willy Castellanos knew that what he was shooting not only involved those who were leaving but would also affect those who stayed behind. In essence, this would also prove to be an omen of his own departure and very well, the reason his photos have the capacity to move us so.

The photos shot by Willy Castellanos are emotionally and politically charged, and exhibit a deranged and stressful reality, at that time, on the brink of violence. On the other hand, these photos cannot help but to express a certain sorrow, as they were shot from the side of those remaining who conveyed a sense of loss -- so widespread in the mid 1990's--, in a society dismembered by migration.

A reading of these photos should address the historical importance and the political significance of the events shot, but the relevance of this project in a specific time, in the history of Cuban photography, must also be noted.  During the 1990s, Cuban photography was beginning to attract attention to a trend that implemented unprecedented gestures of evasion and subversion of the linguistic order imposed by those in power. This trend, which was then beginning to be classified as "metaphorical," [3] expressed itself through representations that alluded indirectly to social situations, triggering images (more than concepts) circulating in the collective imaginary. What was important in the representation was not the explicit, but rather what was omitted that took on a new meaning by way of the parabolic.  Therefore, more than affirming a state of the real -- a function attributed traditionally to the photographic document -- these photos inserted a suspicion in the very act of the representation when confronted with any discourse on reality. Metaphorical photography brought about a revision of the concept of the document, not only because of its semiotic complexity, but also by means of its technological manipulation, as well as the conceptual and thematic renewal associated with it. Perhaps the most emblematic work of this trend is the series Aguas baldías, by Manuel Piña, also made in 1994 and exhibited on the walls of La Cabaña at the Havana Biennial. The photos in this series have the Malecón Habanero as its setting and the poetry of T. S Elliot as its pretext or proto-text, to say it in semiotic terms); in keeping with its "horizon" of meanings is the desire to escape along with the subject's anxiety about the possibility of transgressing the boundaries of a territory turned into abstraction. It is no wonder that the photo of a boy leaping off the wall into the sea became the most striking in this series, and an icon of sorts in post-documentary Cuban photography.[4]

The Exodus photos are at the extreme opposite of Manuel Piña’s project.  So much so, that I feel that the publication of this book closes a cycle that will make for a better understanding of the diverse ways that the relationship between contemporary photography and the field of the documentary was expressed two decades ago. This work by Willy Castellanos does not base its aesthetic functionality on the use of metaphor, and its meaning does not pass through the rebellious filter of legitimate polysemy from the artistic realm, as it is first and foremost a documentary project based on a direct photograph, whose capacity of subversion lies in the fact that the document is removed of the ideological utilitarian functions subjected by the State’s control over the imaginary.

If I ever spoke of New Documentary or Post-documentary (basically referring to that of Metaphorical Photography) it was because, for the longest time,  it seemed  that the only way to shoot outside of the formal models of representation was through metaphor; one capable of criticizing the adherence of the document to a limited field of reality and representation. I now believe that if a practice of photography, in the Cuban context, deserves to be termed Post-documentary, it is precisely the one Willy Castellanos took on in the summer of 1994, which stemmed from the evolution of the documentary to subvert its own program. Willy Castellanos’s photos are Post-documentary because they are first of all documentary -- supported by the removal of metaphor, marking its distance from the hegemonic discourse without sacrificing that which constitutes the realistic photographic fact. But what is important here, is not only that realistic origin, which points to a relationship of "closeness" between the photographic device and reality, but its consequence:  a direct way of constructing the discourse based on the relationship between photography and the device of reality, an alternative to both the notion of "reality" authorized by power, as the working definition of the photographic device, also generated in the repeated representations of power. With this, Willy Castellanos’s photos move away from both the program of metaphorical photography, and that of official documentary, along with its proto-poetic derivatives.

Today it is much easier to understand the conceptual shift if we focus on documentary photography made ​​by independent journalists and so-called "bloggers" in Cuba. These practices, which seek to answer and expose repressive and decadent expressions of political power, are not intended to justify themselves with an aesthetic and artistic program, and are not even based on a strict control of the technical-formal program, formal photographic device (and that is distanced even the work of Willy Castellanos). Its efficiency and radical discourse are based precisely on its documentary nature; and its symbolic potential depends more on the context of a reading than of an accurate authorial intention. In fact, the notion of "author" is likely to dissipate here, as part of a process of mellowing out the subjectivity associated with the photographic apparatus. [5]

Interestingly, the book Exodus opens with two photos that seem to contradict what I have just said. First, because they were obviously not taken in the summer of 1994, and second, they are the only photos in this series clearly affiliated with the metaphorical trend which dominated the world of artistic photography in the 1990s. I mention them, not only because the exception confirms the rule, but because they play a fundamental role in creating an atmosphere, and in setting the tone that is challenged by the rest of the series, throughout the development of the book.

One of those photos is especially significant. It shows a bicycle in the foreground against the background of the Malecón, where the winter waves break --water spilling almost to where the bike lies. The scene is based on two recurring icons of photographic imagery in Cuba in the 1990s: the bicycle, a symbol of the drastic impoverishment of the lives of Cubans during the so-called "special period", and the Malecón, another persistent symbol, which took on increasingly more political-poetic connotations: the border, the breadth of the escape, the realm of freedom and risk.

By bringing these two images together in the same photograph, it shows a clear intention of establishing a discourse about a social situation after a poignant treatment of a spatial situation. The spatial elements such as the strength of the waves and the density of the sky become dramatic in this instance. The solitude of the bicycle evokes a psychological nuance that seeks to give the photo an enigmatic touch. The water surpassing its own limits confronts us with the image of a territory whose borders are blurred. The presence of this photo as a preamble to the book then reveals the intention of opening the subject of the exodus of a non-explicit, but allegorical (one of the few photos of the book with no one in sight) and unlike the rest of the series, we are not confronted as much by a document of the exodus as by a poetic re-elaboration on the notion of ‘’absence’’ and solitude, within a context of drama and violence.

This emotional and psychological nuance is the one Willy Castellanos seeks out as the context in which to read the photos he shot in August 1994. To reconcile with this idea, we must assume poignancy is not opposed to documentary. In fact, I believe that effective communication of any document is made ​​in its aesthetic dimension, and the aesthetic dimension undoubtedly works through the assimilation of the image (film or not) within the viewer's emotional universe. Hence, the importance of memory -- more an emotive key than a cognitive one -- in every photographic document.

The commitment to the affective permeates Willy Castellanos’s work, particularly in the representation of space, since some of most striking images are scenic and abide by the rhetoric of the immense space, the solitude of the human being facing the sea, as well as the vulnerability of the person confronted with the voyage. The images shot by the shore enable us to witness the intensity of each event and also sense its intimate aspect -- one of absolute personal pain, loss, uncertainty and fear.  The night scenes show the sea as an ominous space. The sunset creates reflections that harshen the planes; the sky is oftentimes gray and the atmosphere heavy. Other scenes take on a solemn and ceremonial mood where a certain religiousness in its development can be perceived. And yet, these photos all have quite a different tone from that of the image that introduces the book. If the photo of the bicycle -- seemingly largely staged by the photographer himself -- reveals a certain performative will inseparable from the strategy of metaphor, the drama in the rest of the photos follows its own course: a search for self-expression and meaning in its own right. What needs to be appreciated in the majority of the Exodus photos is the way in which the photographer captures the drama of the situation as something that not only precedes but survives the rhetoric of the language of photography.

This is the classic case in which what is being shot is larger than life, the less the photographer intervenes. And I'm not talking about a neutral look, because that does not exist. I'm talking about a subtle, almost imperceptible shift of the author in favor of the dynamics of what is shot. In the best documentary photography, one can find examples of these shifts that do not respond to an eagerness for objectivity, as is often interpreted, but to an effective way of balancing out the different subjectivities involved in the photographic act.

In viewing these photos, I feel more tempted to question than to interpret -- and induced to make sense of what is occurring before my own eyes. I am strongly influenced by the photographer’s hand in shaping the narrative of this project through sequences that develop along this same itinerary: from the limits of the domestic (the private space of individuals) to the sea (an asocial and pure space); traversing the social and political space of the street, where each photo momentarily appears to be isolated as an interrogation point for the series itself.

Incidentally, I recall a sequence where bicycles also show up. Here, the bicycles are not a melancholic metaphor facing the sea but a means of transporting a long raft. In the first photo, the bunch of soon-to-be navigators transports the raft on bicycles. In the second photo, bicycles are driven by some subjects, while others carry the raft on their shoulders. In the next image, there are neither raft nor men, just a distressed crowd behind the two women’s tense and anxious faces in twilight.  It is followed by photo where a woman weeps covering her face. In the background, a wheel of a bicycle can be seen.

This woman is the same one who takes her clenched fist to her mouth in the previous photo. And though the bicycle of the last photo is not one of those used to transport the raft, the four images are connected by their own rhythm:  one that announces both the tempo of the sequence as well as the pathetic timelessness of the lapse, in which each individual photo seems to be submerged. During this lapse, the individuals are blurred to the extent they become an abstract identity -- humans caught up in the absurd-- toiling away with boards and spare tubes, working up a sweat to heave this odd contraption onto an old car, striving to make these destined-for-shipwreck artifacts float. Or, simply fighting each other in the process of boarding this floating eyesore.

This sense of the absurd is the same one always present in the face of disaster. In fact, what disturbs me most in Willy Castellanos’s photos is the representation of the exodus as a catastrophe. And what surprises me is the photographer’s skill to capture the aesthetic and symbolic dimension of the catastrophe.

This mass exodus was taking place in the realm of the imaginary than in practice. So, the photographer set off to work with a circumstance in which the boundaries between imagination and reality were blurred in advance, but he was cautious enough not to flirt with the aesthetic of magical realism. For example, the nocturnal scene (a group of people wrestling around a raft) has an intense air of unreality, heightened by the strong contrast the light of the flash gives off, and the kinetic rhythm generated by the sequence of the four photos. But there is no mystery there. What the photos convey is the level of irrationality and vacuum in which all the subjects seem to be caught up.

The photographer could not anticipate that vacuum, and neither could the participants of the event. They were clearly leaving. And that, in the Cuban context is critical, because the act of doing so, although highly dramatized, has little by little, become something of a fantasy whose reality is never fully captured.

In grasping the meaning (or meaninglessness) of these events, it is not enough to look at the faces of those leaving but also of those remaining. While these photos are not strictly portraits, there are faces, looks and expressions which complete the meaning of the scenes. The human beings are what make these photos compelling and ultimately, historical upheavals gain fullness as questions about people. And Willy Castellanos manages to convey the historical and political dimensions of what he shot, by precisely drawing attention to the subjects.

One of the most stimulating conceptual elements I have found in Willy Castellanos essay is that it encourages us to rethink the notion of document in the context of Cuban photography from a political dimension (in terms of challenging the hegemonic order of representation), and not just from an aesthetic or epistemological perspective. It would be pointless to insist on a definition of Cuban documentary from the relationship between image and reality when what is at stake, is the relationship between image and power.  

Here, the contradiction with power is implied in the same photographic act that gives visibility to a few subjects and events omitted from the official representations. But confrontation is also expressed in the discourse that reveals, and above all legitimizes these subjects as people, unlike the official discourse that vilifies and depersonalizes them.

As in any document, these photos attest to the level of realism of the photographed events; but they also offer that reality with a symbolic dimension -- a right reserved to those in power for their own representations-- (images of Cubans leaving Havana in 1994 are as epic as the images of Fidel’s guerrillas entering Havana in 1959); the look of the girl sitting on the edge of a raft means more to the history of Cuba than that of Guevara’s in the famous Korda photo).  In more concrete terms, it reveals a social dynamic that cannot be absorbed by the populist discourse. After all, where were “the people” at that moment? Were they staging their support to the power of television or making rafts that never made the news? Were they saying goodbye to those leaving? Does the air of marginalization exclude many of the subjects in these photos from the notion of “the people”? Actually, in light of these photos, it is easier to associate the concept of “the people” with that powerful image offered by Ernesto Laclau in The Discursive Construction of the Vacuum.  Here, the vacuum is detected in the discourse of power, and in the power itself, which only becomes reality in the discourse. So, rather than a vacuum of power, Willy Castellanos’s photographs reflect the condition of power as a void, as an omnipresent absence, as an overwhelming vacuum.

At the end of the essay on metaphorical photography, quoted here, I suggested: "It is possible that a section of contemporary Cuban photography ends up serving that exact narrative function -- in part documentary, in part mythologizing -- of photography from the 60’s and 70’s.  I would like to believe that I could at least use photography as a reference to learn about the History Cuba during those years.[6] "At the time I said so, hoping that a cross-referenced reading of metaphorical photography could lead to a reconstruction of history from the fragments of the imaginary. Now, that insight can be ratified based on Willy Castellanos’s photos, without having to resort to the sinuous reading procedures imposed by metaphor. That does not mean one should fully trust these images, but most important is to know that these images will help one to place trust in one’s own position regarding history.

Exhibitions (Gallery view)

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