Anna Mia Davidson used her classic analog Leica to create a timeless document celebrating the Cuban people.
“I view photography as a tool for social change and as a means of telling visual stories that might otherwise get overlooked. I am interested in cultures and communities on the brink of change and in the positive spirit of people who have endured and rise above their circumstances through their own will and ingenuity. I often look for the positive and beauty in quiet unexpected moments to tell a story through the lens of hope.”
Q: What camera equipment do you generally use?
A: I use a few different camera systems depending on the project or assignment. As far as Leica gear, I use a Leica M4-P when I want to shoot 35 mm film and Leica M for digital. I shot all my Cuba photographs with a Leica M4-P.
Q: Can you provide some background information on these images?
A: In 1999, despite the longstanding United States embargo against Cuba, I set out on what would become an eight year long photographic project. I was looking for the positive remnants of the Cuban Revolution. As a young activist, I questioned the morality of the embargo. Cuba is an intoxicating and perplexing country. I fell deeply in love with the people, particularly their spirit of perseverance and their ingenuity when confronting profound adversity. It was ultimately off the beaten path and within the shadows that I found Cuba’s dichotomies in all their beautiful and trying complexities.
When I first began photographing in Cuba, the island nation was just beginning to heal from the Special Period when Russia pulled its financial support after nearly four decades. During this time of transition, sustainable agriculture in Cuba became a global inspiration for feeding the population, as farmers learned to work without using the chemicals once supplied by Russia. The rural life surrounding the agricultural practices went mostly unseen by most of the world. I felt compelled to photograph outside the towns and urban centers — Cuba beneath the surface. These images are from that visual journey and will be published alongside my images of Cuba’s urban centers by Steidl in my book Cuba: Black and White that’s coming out this fall, with an opening exhibition at the Leica Gallery Los Angeles starting on December 10th.

Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?
A: These images are a testament to the resilience and dignity of the Cuban spirit despite the adversity they’ve endured. I chose to shoot this project in black and white to allow the viewer to focus on the true emotional essence of the people captured in each image, and to eliminate the provocative sexiness and distraction that color often entails.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: My approach to photography is to tread lightly, try to be as stealthy and unencumbered as possible, and turn your brain on before you start shooting. I often think about my subjects for a while before I begin shooting a project. I research ahead of time and then I come up with my own perspectives and understanding after experiencing the subject firsthand. After that I follow my instincts, as sometimes you don’t know what you’re really trying to say until the editing table. Patience I have found to be key, since sometimes your instinct says I’m in the right spot, there’s a photograph here, and you just have to wait until the moment is right or the image surfaces. You also have to know when to trust your gut to abort the mission and move on.
Q: Taken as a whole, these images of life in Cuba convey a nostalgic lost world feeling. And many of them look like they could have been shot 50 or more years ago. Do you agree? When did you actually shoot them and what do you think they say about Cuban culture that sets it apart as something special, and perhaps even precious?
A: I made these photographs 1999-2008. There is a sense of timelessness about them, and in a more profound way they reveal a culture stuck in time. Around this same time, also with my Leica M4-P, I photographed in the mountain villages of Ukraine; again a country that was on the brink of change yet stuck in time. The Cuban people have relied on their own resourcefulness for survival. It is a complex country where penetrating the layers takes time, patience, and sincere friendship and compassion. There is beauty and depth to the Cuban spirit I have yet to experience elsewhere. There is a lot to learn from the Cuban people about ingenuity, creativity, humanity and sense of community.

Q: This shot is a masterfully composed, timeless image that (to me) captures what it means to be a farmer. The oblique stance of the subject and the forms of the leaves seem to capture the eternity in the moment. Am I over the top here? Anyway, where do you take this picture and what does it say to you personally?
A: Thank you so much for those words. I made this photograph in Viñales in 1999. The farmer becomes one with the crop leaves. There is no separation between the farmer and his veins pulsating from hard work and the veins of the leaves he grows. Sustenance, with life forces nourishing one another in a symbiotic relationship between grower and the crops they grow. I was deeply touched by the tenderness I continually witnessed between farmers and the crops or animals they tended to. When you juxtapose that with the reality of industrialized farming techniques and factory farming that have plagued industrialized nations there becomes an even more profound beauty in what we are witnessing here.

Q: This image is amusingly ironic — a young man absorbed in playing chess with a framed picture of what looks to be Che Guevara also playing chess, hanging above him in the background. As a photographer I can certainly understand why you took this amazing picture, but what do you think it says about Cuban society, and how do Cubans react to it?
A: There are many different layers of meaning to this image. In every government sponsored facility there is a framed portrait of Fidel or occasionally Che. It’s representative not only of their hand in all that has been made available to those who, under the Batista regime, would have had no resources. At the same time it also is a reminder of the ever-present watchful eye over all the Cuban people. There is also a sense of playfulness and camaraderie in this particular image of Che showing him as one with the people. Chess and Dominoes are national pastimes of most Cubans. You see the games being played all across the country in cities and countryside. Does this young man playing chess embody the Cuban revolutionary spirit, taking advantage of one of the many government sponsored community centers or is he merely passing the time playing chess to fill the hours and days because he is unable to realize his dreams? That is the complexity within Cuba that I feel I witnessed. I have not yet shown this image so I don’t know how Cubans would react to it. As with any of my images, the answers depend on whom you ask.

Q: Here is a beautiful picture of a group of girls dancing on a carpet, but what really makes it a stopper is the lighting, which defines the space and illuminates the front-most girl in an angelic halo of light. Where did you take this shot, who are these girls, and please provide the tech data including lens, exposure, film, etc.
A: This image was taken in the small town of Cienfuegos. The girls are dancing in a flamenco dance class on a tiled floor in their teacher’s living room, an example of Cubans’ abilities to create jobs for themselves. It’s also a visual example of how important the arts are in Cuba. Children learn dance and/or music from a very early age, sometimes merely from exposure, other times from classical training and lessons. I shot this picture on Tri-X 400 using a 28 mm lens most likely f/4 at 1/60 sec. I may have pushed the film to ISO 600. I would carry a marker with me and in a dark lighting situation I’d mark my film PUSH, either to ISO 600 or sometimes to 800 depending on the situation. Dimly lit dark spaces with natural light are some of my favorite lighting situations to shoot in. There was only available light here pouring in from an open door to the street, filtered by a window shade.

Q: There is something very sweet and serene about this image of a young man and his son running along a road with beautiful hills and a pleasant sky in the background. It’s a lovely composition with excellent tonal gradation, and like several of your other images it has a timeless quality. Where did you take this picture and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: I took this photograph in Viñales. It’s a father and son running. I was walking in the agricultural area looking for farms to shoot and when I saw them running; I was struck by how beautiful and unexpected a moment that was. I had never seen Cubans out running in the countryside before and for the boy to be running without shoes encapsulates the strength and beauty of the Cuban spirit despite adversity. I was moved by it.

Q: This image looks like it could have been lifted from a National Geographic magazine of the 1930s. To me it conveys a strong sense of place and a feeling of pastoral innocence exemplified by the girl in the foreground dancing playfully and the rustic dwelling in the background with a woman and a child observing her. Do you think that the Cuba captured in this picture will soon be gone, and if so, in what way, if any, will it be a change for the better?
A: There is a certain innocence and feeling of a culture lost in time which exists especially in the countryside of Cuba. However, there are layers within that which are the complex realities of everyday life that are not always easy to live with. Over the years I worked on this project I felt a shift, a change. Change is inevitable and change, based on my conversations with many Cubans, is what the Cuban people themselves would like. One man’s words still ring in my head to this day “We are drowning,” he said. So who am I to judge whether the changes that will inevitably come to Cuba are for better or worse? With all political and social change come pros and cons. I only hope they are changes that feel good and helpful to the Cuban people on the whole and are not just in the financial interest of a few. I hope the changes are what the Cuban people themselves want and not what will be inflicted upon them by outside financial predators.
Q: You’re involved with the Leica Akademie. Can you tell us how you got involved and what your role is?
A: I am involved with the Leica Akademie as a workshop instructor. I first worked with the Leica Akademie as an instructor in Los Angeles in conjunction with the Momenta Workshops for Project Los Angeles Working with Nonprofits. I also worked as an instructor on one of Leica Akademie’s New York City Street Walks, focusing on street photography during Halloween. This September 10-13 I will be teaching a Leica Akademie destination workshop on the incredible Whidbey Island off the coast of Seattle, Washington. We will explore visual storytelling while going deep and having fun along the way. It will be perfect training for anyone interested in assignment and travel photography as well as anyone interested in taking on long-term photographic projects.
Q: What do you find especially rewarding about leading workshops?
A: I find it rewarding to pass along all the insider information I have to help people navigate this challenging industry. Leading workshops as a way to give back and share my knowledge and experiences as a photographer. Students from my previous workshops contact me from time to time to update me on their achievements or to ask a mentoring question. It’s inspiring to see the positive work they are doing photographically and to know that in some way I was part of their journey.
There have been moments where one thing I have said creates an impact on a student’s career or the way they see, and I love that. I believe in photographic relationships and information sharing to help propel new careers forward. There are subtleties about being a photographer that are impossible to gain from reading a textbook. The nuances of how to get in close to a subject, how to relate to a subject, to gain trust and access, is something that is a strength I have as a photographer and something I believe I can pass on to my students. Teaching workshops also allows me to help facilitate a spirit of camaraderie among photographers. It can be a very competitive field but by shifting that energy into one of community building and solidarity, photographers can help each other.
Thank you for your time, Anna!

– Jason Schneider, Leica Internet Team
Connect with Anna on her website.