Havana: a city with which we are all surprisingly well-acquainted, despite many of us never having embarked on Cuban soil. Sun-baked turquoise walls, crumbling in an aesthetically pleasing way; iconic old Mercedes, unceremoniously parked; cool-looking people bearing a passing resemblance to the omnipresent figure of Ché. The legacy of photography permits us this knowledge.
Photographers are shooting “stock” pictures, for the entirely valid reason of earning a living. Such travel brochure images offer up a fantasy, and a safe one at that. A protective coating of gloss saturates the pictured city, rubbing off sharp corners, domesticating the exotic for extreme viewing comfort.
Belgian-born Vincent Delbrouck – alias VD – offers a different perspective with his raw, sweaty vision of Centro Habana, a kind of autobiography from the years he lived there with Cuban friends. Beyond History has a scrapbook aesthetic, in which Polaroids, handwritten letters, transcripts of emails, passages from books with key phrases underlined, jostle for space and attention with photographic portraits, mostly of young Cubans. Some of the photographs have been written on and over, and the effect is both absorbing and unsettling. In eschewing the conventions of both a family album and a photo book, the reader is invited to contemplate this territory on different terms, negotiating between the very private sphere and that of a shared, more public space. Such a tactic works well given what VD is seeking to create: that most elusive state, authenticity. His disregard for the traditional separation between text and image reminds us of the difficulties that underpin representation of any kind. The written incursions onto the photographs obfuscate any attempt to anchor meaning, instead creating, or perhaps revealing a chaotic reading experience. These are lives – like all lives – about which one cannot say as a generalisation: “they live like this.”
The book is divided into 10 chapters, or visual poems, in the words of the author, which seem fairly arbitrary. A more persistent structure to the book is that of the ongoing dialogue with Cuban author Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, a master of “dirty realism”, which instantly sounds like a word-perfect description of VD’s oeuvre, his pictures thick with a sweaty sensuality. Shoulder straps, vest tops, bare torsos, breasts and buttocks are the currency here, revealing that particularly exuberant body confidence absent from British culture. Also assiduously observed is a series of domestic objects and effects – from the circular metal chair with its two mismatched, battered cushions, to an open fridge, two large hunks of polythene-encased meat and a metal flagon crammed into its icebox. The fridge’s yellowing plastic and rusty shelves seem to contain nothing more than shabby water containers and a stray beer. It’s in urgent need of defrosting, but you suspect its owners would rather spend Saturday morning in bed than servicing their whitegoods. And it’s this too-sexy-to-care attitude that has so seduced this book’s author.
In the chapter Sea Memories, an exquisite series of pictures flows from an untranslated page from a French novel. A young headscarfed woman in a skyblue vest top looks bored. A many-fingered cactus dominates the next page. A Polaroid of hot young guys on the beach, posing for the camera, follows. Then – and this is exactly when VD’s inclusive vision works its magic – comes a picture of a terrapin in a filthy, broken bowl. This is poetry and antipoetry (the facing page carries a poem by Gutiérrez called “Material Antipoético” – translation in the back). Everything that a consumer-driven society obsessed by perfection would find depressing and cheap and ugly and sad is made beautiful in its unbeauty. This is VD’s great achievement and his great love.