Richard Fleming, a world traveler thanks to his career as a documentary sound recordist, had his "Eureka!" moment while walking in the hills of Haiti.
Given the weekend off from his latest film, he went backpacking on Haiti's remote mountain trails and found them to be anything but isolated. "I was walking along what amounted to a pedestrian superhighway. There were hundreds of merchants and farmers on this footpath, carrying stuff to market," he says. "This is a great way to get to know a culture," he thought.
Fleming hit on the notion to trek the length of Cuba on foot as a way to shake off a midlife rut and better learn a country that had fascinated him for years. He envisioned that Cuba would offer an even more illuminating walking experience than Haiti, since the collapse of the Soviet bloc had created a transportation crisis on the island, with severe shortages in fuel, vehicles and replacement parts. Fleming's four-month Cuban adventure in 2000 led to his new travel book, Walking to Guantanamo, published in November by Commons, and now an exhibit, Walking to Guantanamo: The Photographs, on display at Whitespace Gallery through Feb. 28.
Whether through his descriptive writing laced with self-deprecating humor or through snapshots rich with illuminating details, Fleming shares his experience of Cuba as a nation of lush beauty seemingly forgotten by history. Typewriter repair shops enjoy brisk business, revolutionary slogans cover pitted walls and Afro-Caribbean religions such as Santeria have gradually come out of the closet. Although the book concludes at Guantanamo Bay, Fleming focuses more on its history as a thorn in the side of U.S.-Cuban relations than the current prisoner abuse scandals at "Gitmo."
In a phone conversation from his home in Brooklyn, Fleming acknowledges that the book's title rests on what he calls "a white lie." "One of the running jokes of the book is that my idea turned out to be a complete misperception. I encountered people willing to wait a couple of hours to take a bus just a couple of miles, rather than walk that far in the Caribbean heat. People thought I was crazy to be walking, so I gave up the idea pretty quickly."
Fleming adds that he wasn't in physical shape to walk across a country and developed knee pain after about a week. He says Walking to Guantanamo's other running joke is that he kept "downgrading" his mode of travel and getting further away from his pedestrian ideal. He hopped on a horse and buggy on his third day; arrived in Havana on a public bus; bought a one-speed Chinese bicycle in Trinidad that he rode for most of the rest of the trip (when he wasn't changing flat tires); and hired a car for the final miles to Guantanamo. He encountered the strangest conveyance while walking along some railroad tracks.
"I heard this noise coming up behind me like a leaf blower. Then these guys came up on a gasoline-powered train repair vehicle. It was like a really short train car with no roof, no bigger than an automobile. It looked like something out of Edward Gorey. I couldn't even hear them talking, but they were clearly offering me a ride. It didn't look safe – when they stopped, they skidded about 100 meters. I thought, 'This looks very dangerous – and there's absolutely no way I'm not going to take a ride.'"
Despite many such colorful scenes, Fleming initially intended his photographs merely to supplement a potential book about his experiences. He studied photography in college but never considered himself a professional photographer. He took two cameras to Cuba and thought, "I'm going to be writing a travel book, and I love travel books that have photos of the characters. Plus, if I encounter a scene I want to describe in the book, [the photo] will give me some access to [a] level of detail that might not make it to my notebook or memory."
Whitespace director Susan Bridges enthuses over his work, saying, "Richard has a fresh approach to photographing Cuba that can be attributed to his unusual and arduous journey. His are not clichéd images of beautiful, decaying, empty buildings but very personal, gritty documents of the Cuban people, their land and photographed with a loving eye."
Fleming feels that his photos' literary origins distinguish the showing from the usual photographic exhibits. "I guess it's sort of uncool to have long captions. I go to photo galleries, and it's 'Here's the photo: It's big, it's beautiful, it's photography having its own moment in the sunshine.' This is completely different from that. It's kind of a documentary project. I did my best to represent the aspects of my experience. I almost thought Waiting might be a good title for the show, Waiting for the Bus, Waiting for Something to Change. There are images where you feel this sense of inertia or even resignation, but I tried to balance those with ones that seem more optimistic."
After spending months in Cuba, Fleming feels that change won't come quickly to the island nation, no matter how the country's Communist leadership changes. "For the first few years after I came back, people would ask what I thought would happen 'after Fidel is gone.'" Now Fidel basically is gone, but there seems to be some foresight about how to transition leadership in the Cuban regime. With the Obama administration, I think we have the potential to see real change from the U.S. side. It may be a slow capitalist revolution. We seem to be living perfectly well with China, which hasn't really changed their leadership since we described them as a terrible enemy. The United States is willing to tolerate a socialist government."
Fleming found the Cubans to be open-minded and willing to judge him as an individual, despite decades of anti-U.S. propaganda. "People were curious and excited that I came to their little corner of the world, especially because I went to some pretty remote areas. I met very few people who reacted very negatively to me as an American, apart from one guy, who was suspicious of me. I still did business with him, though." Perhaps such encounters between Cuban and American individuals mark the first steps in a journey to bridge the two nations.