Greg Kahn: Havana Youth
“These photos explore the emerging sense of individuality in a society that was historically focused on collectivism. It shows how Cuban youth are reaching out to their US and European counterparts through cultural world trends.”
Sometime ago I attended a lecture by Greg Kahn at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. His artist’s talk was one of many about Cuba during the Annenberg exhibition, Cuba Is. That evening I came away with a whole new perspective on the next generation of Cuban Youth. I’ve always thought of Cuba as a culture of waiting, but Greg shifted the way I see the future of the island. His project and new book by Yoffy Press, Havana Youth, “explores Cubans born after 1989, who have only known a time after the USSR dissolved and left the Caribbean nation with few resources and a growth-crippling, US-led economic embargo. Those kids, born during what is called “The Special Period”, are now in their twenties and developing a sense of individuality in a society that was historically focused on collectivism. This is their cultural counter-revolution, and they are redefining what it means to be Cuban.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of Greg’s examination of youth culture is recognizing that technology leap frogged from ancient land lines to iPhone technology in this generation, opening up the world and providing global inspiration that affects all aspects of Cuban youth culture.
Greg Kahn (b. 1981) is a Washington, DC – based American documentary fine art photographer. Kahn grew up in a small coastal town in Rhode Island, and attended The George Washington University in Washington D.C. In August of 2012, Kahn co-founded GRAIN Images with his wife Lexey, and colleague Tristan Spinski.
Kahn’s work concentrates on issues that shape personal and cultural identity. His Pulitzer Prize nominated project, “It’s Not a House, It’s a Home,” explores how the foreclosure crisis in Florida defined a new class of homelessness. His recent project in Cuba considers how governance molds individuality. And in Kahn’s ongoing project 3 Millimeters, the quiet depletion of land is the catalyst for the evolution of the inhabitants’ identity.
Clients include: AARP, The Atlantic Magazine, Audubon Society Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, Fortune, National Geographic Traveler, New York Magazine, New York Times Magazine, NIKE, Smithsonian Magazine, Washington Post Magazine, Washingtonian Magazine, Wired
When Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban government in 1959, it signaled a move to emphasize the collective state over the individual. Businesses were nationalized, private property was seized by the government and converted into military facilities, schools and other infrastructure. Castro’s philosophy was to educate students to be an asset in society, not for uniqueness. The revolution ushered in resentment toward the bourgeois, the United States, and their perceived luxuries.
Cubans born after 1989 have only known a time after the USSR dissolved and left the Caribbean nation with little resources and a powerful, growth-crippling, US-led economic embargo. With 80 percent of their imports and exports eliminated by the Cold War, Cubans lived on scarce food and a crumbling infrastructure. This wasn’t the government they were promised. Those kids, born during what is called “The Special Period”, are now in their teens and twenties.
Soon after Fidel ceded power to his brother Raul in 2008, Havana’s youth began experiencing influences from the whole world. Now they are focused on the present, not burdened by the past. They are grasping whatever they have access to in a collective effort to keep pace with international trends and establish their own identity. The once evolutionary process for cultural identity has jolted like the slip-strike of a tectonic plate — from landline phones to a retina-screen iPhone. No cordless landlines, no pagers, no car phones, flip-phones, or any of the other technological steps that have guided cultures from rotary dials to Siri. Their clothing reflects their desires and carries an underlying meaning. Miguel Leyva, a fashion blogger in Havana explained the cultural significance. “Clothes have a strong connotation here, like a journalist writing an article against the government,” Leyva said. “It means to be free.”
These photos explore the emerging sense of individuality in a society that was historically focused on collectivism. It shows how Cuban youth are reaching out to their US and European counterparts through cultural world trends. These aren’t residents trying to flee the country and cut ties. There is apathy and frustration over the system, but there is also pride. Although the Cuban youth identity is evolving rapidly, the choices they are making are authentic. This is their counter-revolution. And they are redefining what it means to be Cuban.
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