Cuban Boys

Cuban boys_tif480
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2 Essays

  1. anbaber says:

    Rachel Tanur’s photograph “Cuban Boys” reflects a central theme of her broader body of work. Rachel makes the decision as visual ethnographer to document life. In this image, these boys sit together embracing one another. The boy on the right has leaned in towards his costar while the boy on the left wraps his arm around his presumable pal. The picture suggests friendship, love, compassion and joy. The smiles of these two boys draws your attention and conveys a relationship that is warm and relatable. They sit outside of an open door in a welcoming pose. These boys are living joyfully; at least in this moment – and Rachel chooses to document their lives and their joy.

    Rachel’s documentation of life stands in juxtaposition to much of the way literature on urban spaces describes and details life outside of the western world (Roy 2011). Her body of work demonstrates a sense of place by the people who occupy her photographs. Her subjects are situated within and part of their environment as opposed to a product of decay, destruction and destitution. The fetishization of the poverty and conditions of non-western spaces constitutes a form of necropolitics, working to uproot power, control and identity from subjects (Mbembe 2003). Rachel’s work radically challenges this dominant narrative. Rachel could have chosen to seek out photo opportunities with an uncritical western gaze, documenting perhaps food shortages or adverse living conditions. Yet, throughout her work, there is little indication of marginalization, subjugation or oppression. Just life. In this photograph, by choosing to document joy, Rachel decolonizes dominant narratives of struggle aligned with the literature on communities of color.

    As Katherine McKittrick (2011) has highlighted, particularly within the United States, the way scholars study communities of color, reproduces the same colonial past by eliminating the possibility for place-identity connection. This urbicide, she explains, has done extreme damage representing these communities as having only experienced struggle such as poverty, housing issues, and neighborhood instability. (McKittrick 2011). Therefore, visual ethnographers have important choices to make, as once their images leave their purview, they are subject to interpretation beyond the researcher’s intent.

    Life, joy, compassion and relationships reverberate through communities that are branded marginalized, disadvantaged or oppressed. Rachel’s work operates to dismantle the structures of domination and colonization maintained through the limited scope of understanding communities of color as besieged places of decay and destruction. Rachel has also tapped into the methodological strength of visual ethnography which powerfully documents social relationships in a manner where written analysis often falls short. Simple words cannot quite describe the smiles of these boys pictured somewhere in Cuba. And while they may encounter the trials of living in a state shunned by the western world, this image, documents their joy instead of their struggle. They are confident and cheerful in connection with their space. The door behind them remains ajar, welcoming, in the same way their smiles do. Similar to the men in the photograph from Johannesburg, I can imagine these boys joyously saying “take our picture” as they joke and laugh. They occupy a boundary between public and private; bridging the gap between the two spaces with a lighthearted smile, an embrace, an exuberance of love and life.

    References
    Mbembe, Achille. 2003. “Necropolotics.” Public Culture 15(1): 11-40

    McKittrick, Katherine. 2011. “On Plantations, Prisons, and a Black Sense of Place.” Social and Cultural Geography. 12 (8): 947-963

    Roy, Ananya. 2011. “Slumdog Cities: Rethinking Subaltern Urbanism.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 35(2) 223-238

  2. johnda33 says:

    How does the ambiguity, or the lack of personal knowledge the viewer has of an image and the subjects affect the amount that the viewer can trust the photographer and in what ways does that ambiguity impact that subject? When an image contains nothing that signifies to the viewers the whereabouts or the actual age and gender of the subjects should we trust the photographers explanation about who those subjects are? Using a semiological approach one can interpret the signs that tell this image’s story which allows for the previously asked questions to be assessed in the context of this photo. Looking at Tanur’s photo, Cuban Boys, I couldn’t help but think about Steve McCurry’s photo Afghan Girl. Afghan Girl shows the subject as if she is fearful and the author gives her no name, this makes her an object as the photo gained popularity due to her eyes, after years she was found and recalls being angry that someone took her picture.
    Cuban Boys has a very different feel to it. Looking at Tanur’s image in a semiological and psychoanalytical way we can decipher a basic identity of the two subjects. The subjects in the photo cannot tell us their own identity and because there are no names connected to them in the image, therefore we cannot confirm or disprove the photographers claim that they are indeed two boys from Cuba. The two in the image are smiling which is a commonly accepted sign of happiness, this gives the general audience the feel that this is a photo meant to be viewed in a positive way. The two are staring directly into the camera which gives viewers the impression that there is some form of consent between the subjects and the photographer about the image. Both are wearing worn out clothes, this us a sign that shows us that they are not rich or from a wealthy area, this is backed up by the state of the building around them as the walls are chipping. I get the idea that the two may perhaps be siblings or good friends by the way that they are embracing each other.
    In contrast to McCurry, Cuban Boys gives at least the illusion of identity, we see the situation the two subjects are in. The relationship between the two, whatever that may be, portrayed by their body language towards one another. Their smiles capture their feelings at the time, though their clothes also offer insight into their possible financial situation. Afghan Girl merely offered an image without context, there are some small emotional clues that one could draw from her facial expressions but it offers no identity and takes a level of dignity away from the subject.
    As far as my question, though there is still a level of ambiguity to this photo it at least gives that illusion of individuality and personality. That being said, because there is ambiguity and very little outside context to this photo it is difficult to make a case for the author about trust. The author says that these “boys” are Cuban but there is nearly no outside evidence to prove that these subjects are from Cuba. The author also says that the two are boys, but it is still only an assumption for the audience to take this as truth. The two are wearing what many would claim to be male gendered clothing and they have short hair which is a common signifier of male gender. That being said aside from those two things there is nothing outside of subjective signifiers to prove that they are boys especially when one takes into account the fact that they seem to be lacking money. Gendered clothing is somewhat of a luxury, in areas where money is lacking clothing is often just given out.
    Subject ambiguity sacrifices a lot of factual material and forces the viewer to dive deeper into an image for information. This makes the viewer question the boundaries of trust between the author and themselves. There is ultimately a right and a wrong way to go about giving ambiguity to the subjects of a photo, I find that Tanur’s image is an ethical way to go about keeping ambiguity as where McCurry’s image is much less ethical, this is backed up by the lack of backlash to Cuban Boys and the large amount to Afghan Girl. These two images are examples on opposite sides of the spectrum. Where Afghan Girl removes personality and the voice of the subject Cuban Boys allows the subjects voices and personalities to tell the story of the image.