When you picture Cuba, you might picture cigars, vintage cars and weather-beaten buildings. But to photographer Alex Garcia, that wouldn’t be anywhere near a full portrait.
A Chicago native, Garcia has been traveling to and documenting Cuba for nearly 30 years — visiting family, leading photography tours and working as a photojournalist.
Garcia first visited his family in Cuba in 1995.
“I was really propelled to go there for the first time to see them because it was right after the Balseros crisis, where people were basically jumping into the ocean,” Garcia recalled.
Thousands of Cubans on rafts and boats were fleeing to the United States. But despite being spurred by that crisis — and despite the fraught political history between the two countries — Garcia thinks of himself as pretty nonpartisan.
“I think the only time that people ever really hear about Cuba is maybe more in a political context,” he said. “The more that we get to know each other as people, the more that we get to know each other as neighbors, I think we’ll have greater intersections of understanding and appreciation.”
After his first trip in 1995 Garcia returned as an exchange student, and eventually worked as a photojournalist when the Chicago Tribune opened a Havana bureau.
“The pictures I was looking for might have had more of a news angle to them, … and because of that, I had them more in black and white to emphasize the content,” Garcia said. “Over time, they’re more colorful, they’re more about people and they’re more appreciative of just the culture as a whole.”
Garcia’s pictures allow the humanity of his subjects to shine, free of preconceived notions. The show has celebratory moments as big as a fireworks show and as small as the back of a car. And it doesn’t shy away from the harsh conditions many Cubans face — like a once-well off mother and son with little left beyond one another.
“Photojournalism is at its best when it tells stories that allows people to understand complex issues in a way that they may not have understood,” Garcia said.
Denise Keim is a longtime street photographer and former professor. She opened the Chicago Center for Photojournalism earlier this year in an Uptown storefront.
“It requires a lot of guts (and) tenacity, and there’s very little support for photojournalists today,” Keim said. “It was really important for me to bring art and this back down to the street level, just like the bodega and the butcher and the beauticians and the coffee shops.”
In addition to exhibiting photographers’ work, Keim is teaching street photography and the ethics of photojournalism and hosting a lecture series. She’s also planning an after-school series with local high schools. For Keim, the center is a way to make these important images last.
“The old saying was your photo was in the newspaper and the next day it’s in the kitty litter box, right?” Keim said. “So I’m really concentrating on long-term projects that photojournalists have been working on for long periods of time.”
Garcia’s decades of photos certainly fit that bill. Since leaving the Tribune, he has opened a video production company — and he runs workshops in Cuba, taking groups on photography tours.
“We’re staying in people’s homes, we’re eating at restaurants run by private citizens,” Garcia said. “It’s a really great opportunity to get close to the warmth and the openness of the Cuban people.”
“Enduring Ties: Resilience and Longing in Cuba” runs through Sept. 15.