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Havana Youth, the debut photobook by Washington, DC–based photographer Greg Kahn, shines a light on the new Havana—feisty, sexy, alive, and evolving. It’s a stark contrast to the place stuck in time, as so many Americans have come to know Cuba. Kahn reveals a vibrant city living in and for the moment.
Needless to say, with Kahn’s book, you’re not getting the same well-trodden images of vintage American cars, women hanging out of colorful windows, and old men rolling cigars. His luscious images dismiss those stereotypes and instead put a new, young Cuba on full display. Kahn’s Havana Youth, published by Yoffy Press, focuses on a generation whose world has been infused with American and European culture seeping through technological cracks—like MP3s of the latest American music sold on thumbdrives.
“When I was talking to these people,” Kahn tells Mother Jones, “they were so sick of this idea of what people perceived Cuba to be, with the old Cuban clothing, the cigars. This generation doesn’t have the attachment to that. When I showed them images, they were like, ‘You get it. You’re not photographing us like we’re in a fishbowl. This feels like it comes from us. This feels like who we are.’”
You might say the project found Kahn. While on a trip reporting on changes in Cuba in 2012, a few years before former President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations with the island, he followed the sound of loud bass rumbling through the streets. It led him to a concert in a plaza.
“There were throngs of people dancing and raving, just having a good time. It was all music I recognized, music that was popular at the time in the US. That’s where it dawned on me that the generation adapting to the new regulations was going to have the country evolve in a direction they want,” he says. Kahn thought, “‘That’s the project I can dive into, beyond the topical news coverage of the day.’”
In six trips made over four years, Kahn’s access to the youth culture got deeper and deeper. “It was really just me going back to high school, trying to fit in with the cool kids, allow them to let me hang around,” he says. “I just wanted them to show me what their life was like versus having a preconceived idea of what I wanted to see.”
Kahn’s photos focus on musicians, dancers, and other artists. He brings you into underground nightclubs and impromptu street corner hangouts. His subjects are typically Cubans born after 1989, those who 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. The result is a sharp mix of in-the-moment documentary photos and strong portraits. It helps not just to give you a sense of the place (Havana), but also of the people (youth).
“I just wanted to see how they felt and what they thought,” he says. “It took me on so many different turns. I didn’t think about fashion when I started. I really was thinking about music and art, then another door would open up, and then another.”
Kahn writes in a caption to one of his photos that young Cubans are “mixing and matching to their own taste. 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.”
“I found myself seeing so many different sides and facets of this younger generation and seeing them really exploring avenues that weren’t open before and making something their own,” Kahn said. “I just let them lead the way.”