For E. Wright Ledbetter, photographing Cuba wasn't motivated by the country's volatile political climate or an economy struggling under nearly 40 years of trade restrictions with the United States.
It was about people.
A selection of Mr. Ledbetter's Cuban images, taken between 1997 and 1999, will be exhibited at the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art through Feb 23.
"The focus of this project is to look at contemporary Cuba and the climate by looking at the Cuban people," Mr. Ledbetter said. "What I've tried to do is build a visual narrative using three styles - the environmental portrait, the street shot and social landscape, which are images that show the presence of people without actually showing people."
Motivated by a newspaper article, Mr. Ledbetter, who works as the gift officer for capital giving at the Darlington School, a private elementary and secondary school in Rome, Ga., made his first trip to Cuba without truly understanding what was going on in the small island nation 90 miles south of Florida. Soon after arriving, however, he was given a clear sign that Cuba was approaching a pivotal time in its history, a time that he might be able to document.
"I went down there, and my hotel was bombed, and three people were blown up in the lobby," he said. "So I knew that there was a lot of tension and uncertainty around and that I had picked a good place to explore."
As Mr. Ledbetter took to the street and began collecting images of the people, he learned that much of what he had assumed to be truths about Cuba - that it was an oppressive society where anti-American sentiment ran high - were false.
"It is an unfair stereotype that Cuba is a bad and evil place," he said. "It is an incredible culture, and the Cubans are an incredible people that I think we have ignored too long. In fact, the greatest surprise for me was going to Cuba and being embraced by the Cubans. There is a real thirst in Cuba, I think, for a redefinition of the relationship between Cuba and the United States, and they love Americans."
Although Mr. Ledbetter wanted to distance his project from politics, he found that documenting the people meant documenting the effects of the Fidel Castro years on them.
"As I started to photograph, I realized there was no way I could say what I wanted to say without addressing the political environment," he said, pulling one of his photographs, a young man diving, caught in mid-flight over a rocky precipice, from a pile of carefully stacked frames. "So images like this one, Diving Off the Malecon, have a lot of visual power, but it also represents the culture, frozen in advance with the future in question. Will this diver, like Cuba, sink or swim, live or die, succeed or fail?"
Mr. Ledbetter said that the most difficult parts of the process were his own limitations and limitations of time.
"With a project like this, you have to impose an ending point," he said. "I had thought about making this a 10-year project, and that would have been easy to do. But I think in the end I found that shooting over two years allowed me to reach a point where I was able to say what I was trying to say."
Mr. Ledbetter said the Cuban people have allowed him, however briefly, to become a part of their communities.
"I hope that people make a personal connection with these images and understand that this project isn't about Cuba per se," he said. "Cuba is just the setting. This is about the human condition. It's about something we all have in common - the challenge of living."
On displayWhat: Cuba: Tomorrow in QuestionWhen: Through Feb. 23. Opening reception and gallery talk 6:30-8:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 26Where: The Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art, 506 Telfair St.Admission: $5 reception admission for nonmembers. Call 722-5495.
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