Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Photographic Memories

Viñales Valley at sunset.

Juan with his coffee plants
Meet Juan. Juan is a 70-something year old farmer (He doesn’t know his exact age) living in Viñales Valley, Cuba. On my recent trip here, I had pulled my bicycle off roadside and was curiously examining coffee cherries. Juan walks up with a delightfully welcoming grin and says. “You like coffee?” I gleefully respond, “Yes!” Juan cordially asks “Would you like to come see my house and farm? “Por supuesto!” I affirm. 

We walk 15 minutes to his house. Upon arrival, we are greeted by his loyal mutt who’s tail circles like a helicopter (Petey Pablo reference anyone?) and exhibits a playful exuberance. I ask its name. “Perro negro.” “Black Dog.” I chuckle to myself…original! Juan forcefully, yet excitedly leads me around his farm allowing me to pick coffee cherries, oranges and see his small tobacco plot as well. We then return to his home.

Juan opens the door to his home. It is perhaps 75 square feet. Austere might be an overstatement. The faded aqua tinted, splintered wood leaves small gaps where sunrays dance inside resembling a disco ball lighting effect. 
Fresh Coffee Cherries

There are two chairs. They are on their last legs literally. It seems the next person to test their fortunes, will be met with a welcoming crash to the ground. There is a simple bed in the back and a small partition wall that separates the bed from the room with chairs. Juan opens the two windows. Rain has just fallen, so there is a genuinely pleasant crispness in the air. The wind rushes in and the verdant trees and hillsides are framed perfectly. It’s a simple moment, but my soul is undeniably satiated and my heart is full. I will remember this moment for the rest of my years.

“Take a seat!” Juan says. Uh-oh. Here it comes. I see it now. The good old elementary school guffaw as the legs break and I thump the ground. Juan will be left with one chair. “Take a seat. Take a seat,” he implores. Alright. Whatever. I’ll go for it. It holds! Magic.

There is still a sense of malaise, as I sit making sure I don’t break one of Juan’s 3 possessions. He walks outside, finds a coconut and artfully slashes it with his machete. He fashions a straw out of some sort of hollow vine and hands it to me. It is gloriously delicious. We start chatting about life. Juan lives alone. His children and wife live in a town 20 or 30 miles away because of work. 
Juan cutting open a fresh coconut for me.

He says, “Mi vida…mi vida es muy tranquilo pero es dificil tambien. Somos muy pobres aqui, pero en general estoy alegre.” “My life…my life is peaceful but it is difficult too. We are very poor, but overall, I am cheerful.”

Juan points to three tiny Polaroid taped to his wall. They are photos of visitors to his house. He says, “This wonderful lady is from America…California. This lovely one is from Canada. And this really funny guy is from….Europe? France maybe?” Juan beams with pride as he looks at these photos. “Will you bring a photo next time?” “Of course,” I say. He then asks me to take a selfie with him. Wait, what? A selfie? Juan doesn’t even have electricity. My camera is rather bulky, and I say with trepidation I don’t it will work. He beseeches me to try it. We give it a go. Eagerly, we look on the LCD screen to see the results. “See, he says. It works! Bring it a printout next time of it for my wall!” We share a laugh, and I tell him I will.

“These are such special people in these photos. They are memories, I will keep forever,” Juan states. It's a truly powerful moment for me.

In large part, the essence of my photography and power of imagery resides in this story. It captures a moment that invigorates our memory forever. It brings us back to that setting at its essence.  These photos of Juan, coffee and Viñales Valley will forever hold power in my memory bank and they bridge a cultural divide. They remind me of the power of simplicity, of the human spirit and how we are all in this together.
A typical home in Vinales Valley

I hope this story resonates with you, and the photos and story give a powerful feeling of the moment. I would challenge all of you to go find a photo/s that means a lot and write about it/them. Tap into your memory and emotions and capture that image! It forces you to slow down. It conditions your attention span in a time where we bounce all over the place. It is cathartic; especially right now with everything going on in our troubling world! If you do, please share your stories with me!

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