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MIKI JOHNSON: What initially drew you both to Cuba? It has been photographed so much already…did you try to approach it in a new way that you hadn’t seen before?
ALEX WEBB: Like many projects, this one began somewhat serendipitously. We certainly did not plan it. I first went in to Cuba 1993 for Life magazine, and Rebecca traveled there around the same time separately. We were both intrigued by the island, but somehow didn’t manage to return until 2000, when we visited together to teach a workshop.
Returning to the country inspired both of us, and we embarked on two separate projects: my exploration of the streets of Cuba and Rebecca’s discovery of unique and sometimes mysterious collections of animals there –– from tiny zoos and pigeon societies to hand-painted natural history displays and quirky personal menageries. It was only eight years later, in 2008, that we hit upon the notion of putting our two very distinct bodies of work together to create a multi-layered portrait of Cuba.
MJ: How many trips to Cuba did you take while making photos for this book, and what places and parts of the culture were you specifically trying to capture?
AW: We made 11 trips to Cuba. Besides our first trips that we took separately, we made six trips together from 2000 to 2005 and then four long trips in 2007 and 2008, when I was fortunate enough to have a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue photographing the island. I initially called my project Esperando because in Spanish the term means both “waiting” and “hoping,” a title that starts to get at my impression of the streets of Cuba.
REBECCA NORRIS WEBB: I originally called my project Three Rooms after the following quote by a Habanero whom I met, a gentle and soft-spoken man who raises cockatiels, love birds, and parakeets: “I have three rooms in my house –– two are for my birds, and one is for my wife and me.”
For the past decade, I’ve been exploring the complicated relationship between people and the natural world. In the 25 cities I visited for my first book The Glass Between Us, I never witnessed anything quite like what I’ve seen on “the violet isle,” a little known nickname for Cuba inspired by the rich color of its soil. Nearly 700 miles across, Cuba is easily the largest island in the Caribbean and has its own endemic species, including the world’s smallest bat and the world’s smallest bird. Alex and I traveled nearly the entire length of the island in pursuit of our separate obsessions.
MJ: Why did it appeal to you to combine your two bodies of work into one book about Cuba? How are the images grouped in the book?
AW: Even though early on I envisioned making my own Cuba book, I also wanted to do something different –– something different from my past books and something different from the many Cuba books already published. The notion of combining our work resolved these concerns for me.
RNW: Combining our work created a more complicated portrait of the violet isle, one that explores not only the streets of this Caribbean island, but also Cubans and their relationship with the natural world.
As far as the sequence of the book is concerned, Alex’s and my images are interwoven into a kind of “duet” of images, often with a sense of point and counterpoint. We like to think of our photographs as speaking to one another, or, as Pico Iyer suggests in the afterword to the book, sometimes our photographs even “rhyme.”
MJ: Was the editing process more difficult or more dynamic because you were integrating two sets of images?
RNW: The challenge of interweaving our work was initially daunting and ultimately exciting. Our edit of Violet Isle was probably the most dynamic, challenging, and surprising one we’ve ever attempted. In the process, we discovered that by interweaving our Cuba photographs –– with their echoes and tensions and cracks and contradictions –– we were able to create a more complex portrait of the violet isle, a place prone to both political and romantic cliches, than either of our bodies of work could have done separately. That’s what we found so fascinating and mysterious and humbling about collaborating on this project. “Cracks are a given between one collaborator and another,” the poet C.D. Wright once wrote about her collaboration with the photographer Deborah Luster, “that’s how the light gets in.”
MJ: What do you hope the book captures or conveys? What does the book say about Cuba?
RNW: We hope that the book gives a sense of the Cuba that we found: a complicated, paradoxical, enigmatic island; an island in an economic, political, cultural, and even ecological bubble — since scientists now say that because the island is comparatively free of plastics and other pollutants, Cuba may be protected environmentally.
AW: I’d also like to add that, thanks to the vagaries of history and politics, Cuba has now existed for some 50 years outside of the world of globalization, outside the vast currents dramatically transforming the face of our world today. How many 21st Century countries have almost no commercial advertising? How many countries have, for better or worse –– indeed, for both –– resisted so adamantly the incursion of U.S.-inspired culture?
RNW: All of this, we hope, is the Cuba of Violet Isle, the Cuba that Pico Iyer calls “the ambiguous island.”