Cuban Fan Ladies

Cuban Fan Ladies323
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2 Essays

  1. Craig Calhoun | SSRC says:

    Hiding, bored, or hot?

    The eye is drawn first to color, second to composition, and only third to wonder about the subjects. But what are they thinking, feeling, expecting?

    Three women sit, dressed in bright finery. Two hide their faces behind fans. The third, sitting next to a basket of fresh flowers looks away and puts her fan between herself and the other two. It’s an accidental gesture, perhaps, but there is more distance. On closer inspection, the central figure is blond and relatively pale. On her right is a woman dark-haired but relatively light skinned. On her left, looking bored or a little anxious, is a Black woman. The Black wears bigger jewelry and a bright red wrap in a bow on her head. She has no wedding ring, as the other women do.

    And on such seeming details much turns. Are the white women visitors, only for the moment making a matched set with the Black in the seemingly self-evident unity of the picture? Are the flowers for sale or just bought? Is there an element of play for some where there is work for others? Or have the appearances I have sought to decipher deceived me?

    Travel and comparative research alike offer us the chance to project our interpretations onto others they may not fit, but also the chance to break with the illusion that the meanings of the world are obvious. These chances are not options for everyone. Sometimes the world intrudes, sometimes it is sought out. Sometimes interpretation is neither the traveler’s play nor the researcher’s work but the necessity of someone who lives by sizing up customers to make small sales, or women who must determine whether men are to be greeted with fear or flirtation (or boredom).

    Only the woman I guess to be poorer and local puts her bare foot or her face plainly into view. But she is not entirely revealed.

  2. Aubrey Graham | 2016 First Prize Winner says:

    With their faces mostly hidden, these women still reveal much. The three dames in elaborate dress sit on a low bench against an aging stone façade – perhaps a church or cathedral - somewhere in Cuba. Fans mostly obscure their faces and long dresses and a basket of flowers remove five of the six feet from view. Like a carefully constructed studio photograph, the image shows them as sumptuously adorned and associated with the beauty of the equally colorful flowers in the basket. Bangles, fans, rings, lace, headscarves, ruffles and yards of bright fabric decorate their bodies and add to the compelling appeal of the image. They appear to be dressed for a special occasion – to perform a dance, to attend a special service, or celebrate a particular festival or holiday. Such a photograph seems to draw from a rich history of social science photography as a means to document material culture.

    Photographs are powerful not only for their ability to be used as ‘evidence’ (Tagg 1988), but also for their inherent ambiguity (Berger 1973). Each photograph will raise more questions than it answers. Here, due to the minimal context included, it is hard to see much beyond the well-framed portrait. One can see that women sit, well dressed, on the bench. Two of the fan ladies cover their faces, potentially avoiding a photograph that can identify them. This raises questions about the power dynamics and expectations of appearance in relation to notions of gender, class, and race within Cuba. Moreover, it also raises questions about the power dynamics between the seated women and Rachel, as a foreign female photographer. Answers to these questions lie in the unpacking of the situation in which the photograph was created.

    Was this a rural or urban space? Was the photograph created because these women represented a part of Cuba Rachel regularly interacted with? Or perhaps this photo, like her photographs of the Massai in Africa, potentially speaks to the beauty of tradition, which is made ever more visible by its contemporary rarity.

    Additionally, I’m curious about what the women’s body positions say about Rachel’s interaction with them. Did she ask for their permission to take this photograph? Is it fear, irritation, or modesty that causes them to cover their faces. Nonetheless, there is agency in this photograph, showing a physical communication between Rachel and the women. The women respond to her as a photographer. But do they also respond to her as a young American woman? Would this photo have been different if created by a man or by another Cuban citizen?

    Moreover, I suspect that Rachel may not be the only photographer involved in the broader scene. For, the woman on the right gazes to her left with a difficult to pinpoint emotion – is she irritated? Tired? Hot? Simply resting? The woman in the blue dress also points her fan and her face towards that same direction, potentially indicating engagement with additional photographers, while the yellow-fan-holding woman seems to address Rachel directly. As such, if there were more than one photographer, it suggests that the opportunity to photograph these beautifully decorated women was unique and perhaps fleeting. Ultimately though, the pretty composition of such a portrait leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. It also creates a compelling photograph through which to spin myriad hypotheses, the reality of which only Rachel and the three fan women would be able to confirm.