Life & Culture

One Photographer’s Poignant Portrait of Cuba

Currently on display at Elliott Halls Gallery in Amsterdam, Henry Horenstein’s photographs capture Havana’s El Malecón at the turn of the millennium

At Christmas in 2000, American photographer Henry Horenstein was nursing a broken heart. “My girlfriend dumped me and I was really depressed,” Horenstein tells Another Man. Then a phone call changed it all – his friends were travelling to Cuba for a film festival and invited Horenstein to tag along and spend the holidays in Havana at Hotel Nacional de Cuba, once owned by famed gangster Meyer Lansky.

Horenstein immediately accepted and packed his bags. “I didn’t think I was going to photograph at all, just enjoy myself and get out of my bad mood, so I brought a cheap little camera,” he says. But day after day, Horenstein found himself alone, walking along El Malecón, Havana’s sparkling eight-kilometre coastal seawall. The words of his mentor Harry Callahan whispered in his ear: “Shoot what you love.”

Now, those photographs made during that fateful week are on view in Henry Horenstein ‘Animalia’ & ‘El Malecón, Cuba’ at Elliott Halls Gallery in Amsterdam. Here, Horenstein recounts his memories of those blissful hours of the day and night making crisp, classic black and white photographs of Cuba at the turn of the millennium.

“The Malecón is like a park for the people of Havana. Since it was the holidays [when I went], a lot of kids were out there during the day, swimming or boxing across the street. Families would come after work and have a picnic dinner. At around nine or ten in the evening, young people would come out to party and by one in the morning, it was a very sketchy crowd. I would occasionally be approached for ‘extra activities.’

“Everyone knew where they were supposed to be and when they were supposed to be there. It was always very safe, even in the middle of the night. The Cubans wanted tourist money because they were poor so they didn’t want any incidents. A couple of people came up to me and harassed me and there were two cops over in two minutes shooing them away and making sure I was okay. They didn’t want a bad reputation.

“I spent the whole time in the Malecón and really enjoyed myself. People were super friendly. No one had a problem being photographed They could use a model fee, which was like 50 cents or a dollar. I chose to shoot in black and white because so many people were shooting the houses and cars of Cuba in colour then. I put the photographs away for a long time. I didn’t want to be another invading photographer. I just wanted to make classic documentary-style photographs.”

Henry Horenstein ‘Animalia’ & ‘El Malecón, Cuba’ is on view at ElliottHalls Gallery in Amsterdam through August 17, 2019.