Documenting the everyday lives of “campesino” – Cuba’s farming community – Sharum stresses the universality of human experience
For American photographer Richard Sharum, the Caribbean Island of Cuba has always been a mystery. “For me, and many Americans, the land is unknown,” he says. “I had a curiosity, and I wanted to dispel the myths I have been told my entire life.” Cuba – a nation heavily embargoed by the US for the last 60 years – is known for its communist politics, vibrant culture, and colourful coastal cities. “I wanted to go far beyond the image of the city, and get deeper into the land. I wanted to see Cubans as they were, and in a way which forbade any memory of what I had been told about them.”
Campesino Cuba, published by GOST Books, documents Sharum’s travels across the country’s northern and southern coastlines, its western provinces, and eastern villages deep in the mountain ranges of Sierra Maestra. As recent anti-government protests have demonstrated, Cuba is a drastically changing nation, with deep-rooted social and racial divides. Sharum turned his lens away from metropolitan politics, instead focusing on the usually unseen lives of “campesino”, which translates to “peasant” or “farmer.”
Sharum began researching campesino life in 2015, and travelled to Cuba to begin shooting the following year. With multiple trips between 2016 and 2019, the photographer developed bonds with the communities, becoming a “mijo” (son) to a family living in the Pinar del Rio province. “I had been staying with a farmer and his family for some time. They welcomed me into their loving home, and when I would return after shooting elsewhere, they would greet me like a long-lost family member,” Sharum remembers. His bonds to the campesino community go beyond the standard relationship between subject and photographer. “I would stay with them again and again, and was just so overwhelmed by their kindness and love.”
Sharum has spent 17 years examining society and universal humanity, from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the lives of homeless students attending schools in Dallas, Texas. “With [my photography] I want to demonstrate that geographic, social, and cultural differences are all valid and worth noting, yet merely superficial,” he explains. The stereotypes of Cuba are a far cry from the realities found in the nation’s farmlands. Here, Sharum demonstrates a rarely-seen reality, one depicting the loving and peaceful lives of Cuba’s rural citizens. “My work is simultaneously a call for empathy on the most basic level, and a recognition that we are all living on one land, without borders, while maintaining different perspectives,” he adds. “Photography is a powerful weapon in the realisation that human connection is our only chance for survival as a species.”
Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.