At a dinner party in Los Angeles, photography professor of the practice Alex Harris had one of those serendipitous encounters that lead to great things. He was approached by Laura Bickford, producer of Che, the story of revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, starring Benicio del Toro and directed by Steven Soderbergh. Bickford was familiar with Harris' work, specifically his collection of documentary writing and photography, The Idea of Cuba (see Books, Duke Magazine, January-February 2008), and asked if he'd be interested in a different kind of assignment: roving photographer on a movie set.
With no specific instructions, Harris, who teaches at the Center for Documentary Studies, and fellow photographer Bill Bamberger were flown to Campeche, Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula. Chosen for its resemblance to the Cuban city of Santa Clara as it would have appeared in the late 1950s, Campeche, along with many of its residents, was enlisted into the mise en scène.
Harris, who had never been on a movie set before, went to work immediately. Imagining that the job required stealth, he had brought along a device known as a blimp to muffle his camera clicks. "The goal was to try not to have Soderberg know we were alive," he says. But what Harris didn't realize was that he would be in the middle of a battle scene, complete with large explosions and gunfire. During the three days he spent on set, the cast and crew completed filming the battle of Santa Clara, the decisive contest in the Cuban revolution that drove Fulgencio Batista's forces from power.
Not a wartime photographer by nature, Harris instead focused his energies on what would have been a pivotal time in Cuban history. He sought out interactions between fatigue-clad actors and the extras—what would have taken place between Guevara's soldiers and the actual inhabitants of Santa Clara. "I wanted to capture the hopes that they must have had at that moment," he says.
In The Idea of Cuba, which Harris compiled over numerous trips to Cuba in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he captured what came to be a different reality of the revolution. As part of the project, he photographed Cuban prostitutes, a group considered by Castro's early regime to be a ready-made symbol of imperialism and its excess. All but eradicated by the late 1960s, prostitution has returned to Cuban society in full blossom as a result of the quasi-capitalistic reforms made by Cuba's government following the fall of the Soviet Union.
For Harris, photographing the moment that Cuba was still hopeful during the revolution, or at least the fictional approximation of it, provided a contrast between idealism and reality similar to the one he explored in his book. "In my own work in Cuba, at the very end of the revolutionary period, it was the end of the hopes of that time," he said. On set, "I had the opportunity to be there at the high point of that hope."
April 1, 2009