Documenting 25 Years of Cuba's Overlooked Optimism

Starting with a trip to find long-lost relatives in the late 80s, photographer Manuello Paganelli has visited Cuba dozens of times, documenting a vibrant, optimistic side of the nation's culture.

by Manuello Paganelli
Dec 4 2016, 7:30pm

'Comandante Ernesto "Che" Guevara.' (1993) Photo © Manuello Paganelli

The following is an excerpt from photographer Manuello Paganelli's new photo book 'Cuba: A Personal Journey 1989-2016' (out now through Daylight Books). The text features over 100 photos Paganelli took during 60-plus visits to Cuba he made over the past 25 years.

The project started in the late 80s when the photographer traveled to the country to find long-lost relatives, and continued through the restoration of US-Cuba diplomatic relations in 2015. With the recent death of Fidel Castro, the work has an added layer of complexity.

All photos Manuello Paganelli © 2016

When I was a boy, I asked my mom why we didn't keep in touch with our relatives in Cuba. She gave me one of those answers that, from time to time, we all give to children, hoping their questions will cease. I did stop questioning—for a while—but as I grew into adulthood, I realized I needed answers. Answers, of course, could only come from traveling to Cuba, so in 1988, I made my first trip to the island. Since that emotional initial visit, I've made more than 60 trips to Cuba. Traveling with cameras and a notebook, I've crisscrossed the island, determined to record the struggles of this misunderstood people, and committed to documenting the magical Cuban spirit.

Remarkably, Cuba is opening up at a faster pace than I predicted. Much has changed since my initial trips, when I was often the only tourist walking down the streets; when having a few US dollars was a crime against the State, something that could get you sent to jail for several years. Today, I no longer see long bread lines. Streets are now crowded with tourists. Hotels are operating at peak capacity.

Other things stay the same, however. Entrancing music continues to fill the streets. Salsa dancers sway late into the evening. Drums beat, folks congregate on the streets, and the Cuban people remain ready and eager to talk and engage. Most of all, the powerful Cuban spirit remains lively and unbroken. Like the dependable old '57 Chevys that roll down the streets of Havana, Cubans stay respectful to the past, while never failing to move forward, full speed ahead, with optimism and determination.

To everyone, let me share with you a small part of beautiful, vibrant Cuba.

'Cuba: A Personal Journey 1989-2016' is out now. Visit Daylight Books' website for more about Pagenelli's work.

Wedding Day (1999)

Baseball Fever in the City (2011)

Elementary Classroom (1995)

Boys Will Be Boys (1991)

Dance Rehearsal (2014)

Heading to the Farm (2005)

Hip-Hop Dancers in Havana (2001)

Volleyball Players (1993)

Waiting for Their Dad (1997)

Una Santerita (1998)

Oxen (2005)