Two years ago photographer Colby Tarsitano traveled to Cuba for three months as part of a study abroad program. It was here where she captured the true heart of the country in her series, Querida Cuba.
Gone are the cliched images of Cuba—the ones we were spoon fed in Hollywood movies and from mainstream media—and instead, a Cuba that is, in Colby’s own words, full of “simple graces.”
We loved Colby’s series so much—it’s not everyday a country’s stereotype is broken with just a few images—so we conducted a quick Q+A with her.
Tell us what prompted you to visit Cuba and stay there 3 months.
I attended NYU Tisch School of the Arts. One of the great things about NYU is their study abroad opportunities. They offered a documentary program in Cuba as a semester abroad...it seemed like a no brainer option.
What were you expecting from Cuba? Did the country change your perspective in any way?
I was expecting the same thing that I think every American who has never been expects- a country stuck in the past with old cars, cigars, and Fidel Castro. It's because I was SO wrong about it that I made this project.
Cuba, for me, was a life changing, humbling experience to say the least. I developed as a photographer and a person there and I feel that I owe so much to the country because of it. I felt that I had to do the country justice in return for what it did for me in creating a project that shows my viewers the realities of the culture- emphasizing that it's so much more than the tropes.
Cuba holds an extremely special place in my heart and my hope is that the work coming out of Cuba and being made about Cuba opens peoples', Americans especially, eyes to the beauty that lives there.
What was your favorite place in Cuba?
This question is so unfair! haha Every place in Cuba is my favorite, and there's so many new places I have yet to explore.
I think one of the most memorable and thought provoking experiences I had in Cuba was in Las Terrazas (an eco-village in the mountains). I went there with one of my close friends to shoot and the whole day it went back and forth from pouring rain to sunshine. We wanted to get to a good vantage point for sunset and started walking up the mountain.
We ended up hitch hiking and catching a ride in this tiny little trailer with a couple of farmers who took us almost to the top. We walked the rest of the way and ended up at an old coffee plantation. The little restaurant there was closing up for the night so we quickly grabbed a couple of TuKolas (Cuban version of Coca Cola) and some cigarettes. We sat under the old coffee reserve and looked out over the forest. We were the only people there.
It continued to rain then shine then rain again. We sat there for a couple hours sometimes in silence, other times talking about really intense subjects. When we were walking back down the mountain we managed to hitch another ride in the bed of a truck. It was such a wild experience. But honestly, everything in Cuba is. Every day, something would happen that would make me step back and be like "Whoa this is my life?" Even I didn't believe it.
How did you get into photography, in particular, documentary photography?
I lovedddd images when I was younger. It didn't matter what kind- in magazines, books, people's Facebooks. I just loved pictures and loved collecting them. It took me until high school to realize what that meant and how I could integrate it in my life. My dad gave me a camera and I started copying pictures that I liked off my Tumblr. It just kind of took off from there.
I got into documentary when I was in college. I took a doc class with my favorite professor ever and I did terribly in it. I couldn't grasp the concept of how to shoot documentary- my pictures were awful. But I had all the right tools and knowledge. It wasn't until I lived in Cuba that I was able to execute this and really start shooting doc work. Everything clicked and it was like oh I get it now. In addition to loving images I always loved wild stories and details. Looking back at it now, it makes sense that my obsessions when I was younger were what they were. It was all setting me up to tell stories through images forever.
We all love this series! Do you have plans to travel again for more documentary series?
Ahh thank you so much! I really love hearing that. It was a lot of work. I'm currently living back in California and have some projects in the works. I'm also really not even close to done with Cuba and want to continue this project.
I have plans for another big doc project in Cuba in the next year and am preparing for that- doing my research and laying out the steps. I'm really, really excited about this one. I'd give you specifics but everything I'm working on is moving really slow, which I like because it makes me take my time on it and really think each shot through. It's a nice change from how fast I had to work in school. As a result, though, everything is really loose and vague. I know what direction I'm heading in but don't want to speak too soon as that direction might completely change with a discovery along the way.