Photography and the Cuban Revolution

As a Humanities Engage Collections-Based Curriculum Development Grant recipient and 7th-year doctoral student in the History of Art and Architecture department, I worked with Professor Jennifer Josten (HAA) to develop a new digital learning module for her Fall 2020 undergraduate course entitled Art and Politics in Modern Latin America. This course, designed and taught by Professor Josten, examines artistic and architectural developments in modern Latin America, from the late nineteenth century to the present day, in relation to broader political, social, and economic forces. A central concern of this course is to consider Latin America, including the Caribbean, from the vantage point of the United States: how has the US intervened in the region historically, and what is the nature of cultural and political relationships between the US and Latin America today? In studying the important contributions made by artists, architects, and patrons in Latin America, this course surveys artists and architects who worked in the service of governmental regimes during the twentieth century, as well as artists who employed artworks to challenge or subvert structural inequities and repression.

The new module, which I developed and taught along with Prof. Josten and her teaching assistant Marisol Villela Balderrama, is titled “Photography and the Cuban Revolution.” The module centers on photography relating to the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the subsequent exodus of Cubans to the US, which reached a high point in 1980 with the Mariel Boatlift and continues today. An important goal of the module was for students to learn about the history of the Cuban Revolution and the Cuban exile experience and to discuss how the trauma of exile has influenced the work of important Cuban-American artists and photographers. Students were asked to engage with significant digital collections of Cuban and Cuban-American photographs, including the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection, which is the largest repository of materials on Cuba outside of the island and the most comprehensive collection of resources about Cuban exile history.

In keeping with the online format of the course, I recorded a 45-minute lecture that provided a brief overview of the history of the Cuban Revolution and a discussion of several significant photographs from the period. In the lecture, I discussed photographs of Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries and how photographs were used as propaganda for the revolution and the new regime’s nationalist and socialist agendas. The first two decades following the Cuban Revolution were a period characterized by enormous and strong censorship, especially concerning images and photographers. Two images discussed in the lecture were by noted Cuban photographer Osvaldo Salas, titled Patria o Muerte from January 1959 and Fidel Castro during a Mother’s Day Event from 1960. Another key image was Raúl Corrales’ photograph, titled La Caballería (The Cavalry) from 1960. Prior to the lecture, students were asked to read selections from the introduction and first chapter of Aviva Chomsky’s A History of the Cuban Revolution (2015).

After watching the recorded lecture, students were asked to complete a written assignment which would be discussed in their recitations. I selected twenty photographs from the digital archive of the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection, and students were asked to view each image and write a short paragraph on how an image of their choice related to one of the course themes. The students shared their selections on Canvas, and this became the basis of that week’s recitation discussions. During recitation, students brought up questions concerning the images selected from the CHC, as well as photographs discussed in the recorded lecture. For me, this was the most rewarding part of the experience, as students engaged in conversations with each other about the role of photography in Cuba both during and after the revolution and, more broadly, how images are used by governments and authoritative entities to propagandize and promote specific agendas.

To conclude, I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to Professor Josten’s course this semester and help develop a new digital-based curricular module on Cuban photography and the revolution of 1959. Working on this material has helped in my own thinking about Cuban photography from the 19th century, which is part of my dissertation project. Having previously taught lectures and recitations in-person, it was challenging to adjust to the online format, and I am grateful to Professor Josten and Marisol for their guidance and help in this regard. Overall, I had a wonderful experience preparing this digital collections-based module and engaging with Pitt students in discussions about the importance of photography.

History of Art and Architecture
December 2020