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Havana in 13 images with Holiday Photographer Olivier Kervern
Holiday magazine photographer Olivier Kervern went
looking for everyday Havana, the city beyond the clichéd images of famous monuments, people dancing in the street, colorful old American cars ferrying tourists around the city and old buildings painted in bright colors. His vision of the city shows the people and the places as they are, from the viewpoint of a curious outsider.
by HOLIDAY MAGAZINE & DELSEY PARIS
The French photographer Olivier Kervern paid his first visit to Havana at Christmastime in December 2021 on assignment for Holiday magazine. He arrived at night, which he found “exciting and scary at the same time because you can see, but you can’t see. It was magnificent.”
A great walker, he followed his intuition over the coming days, wandering through the city and its environs with his Rolleiflex around his neck, photographing subjects that caught his eye.
It had been only two weeks since Cuba opened up after two years of pandemic-related closure, during which there was no tourism, a major source of income for the country. The melancholy feel of the nearly tourist-free city – he was the only guest in his hotel in Centro Habana, and he saw only three tourists while he was there – is beautifully captured in these images.
This shot was taken in a non-touristy part of the Centro district, Havana’s “downtown,” with its hotels, bars, shops, office buildings and clubs, where most visitors congregate. Says
Kervern: “It’s difficult to be a real traveler these days. You are either a tourist or an inhabitant.” This area appealed to him as a traveler who didn’t fit into either category.
Since Kervern is a discreet photographer who dislikes intruding on people’s privacy, the figures in his photos are usually seen from a distance or from the back. In this image,
the couple, tiny and alone in the wide, empty street, are caught in the sunlight as they walk away from the camera.
“There’s no hierarchy in the image,” he says. “You don’t know if the subject is the people or the space, the people in the space, or the relation of the people to the space.”
"This is an interesting shot,” says Kervern, “because it was taken on the border between two different quarters, Centro and Vedado. In Havana, you really feel the difference when you change neighborhoods.”
The famous Solimar apartment building, with its undulating facade, is a landmark for architecture aficionados.
Located on the border between Centro and Vedado, it is an example of Streamline Moderne architecture, a transitional style between late Art Deco and modernism. Designed by architect Manuel Copado, it was completed in 1944.
This is one of the few images taken by Kervern in which we see a car. He intentionally avoided shooting them – not even the famous pre-Cuban-Revolution American models that have been endlessly repaired and are still running – because they have become such a cliché.
“| was interested in the woman with the high heels. She was the one I was photographing. She was like an apparition, straight out of a novel.”
Vedado has a more
prosperous feel than Centro, according to Kervern, with its hotels (including the massive seafront Hotel Nacional, dating from 1930), cinemas, bars and clubs.
This shot of a diner with American-influenced architecture has a lonely, Hopperesque feel it. “These state-run cafés are huge, but they have hardly any customers,” he says. “The ambiance reminded me of Julien Gracq's novel Le Rivage des Syrtes (The Opposing Shore), about an imaginary country where the people live between hope and resignation, waiting for an enemy attack that never comes.”
In this leafy new quarter of Vedado, Kervern noticed a woman walking down the road and photographed her from afar as she continued on her way. When she stopped on the stairway to wait for someone, he passed her and was able to photograph her from above.
This well-known part
of Vedado is home to the renowned Yara movie theater, with its modernist architecture dating from the late 1940s. The cinema is located next to Coppelia Park, home of the famed Coppelia ice-cream parlor, the largest in the world, housed in a flying-saucer-shaped modernist building dating from the 1960s. It’s a popular meeting place for families and friends on the weekend. The state-run Coppelia chain was founded by Fidel Castro, and its Havana branch was used as a location in the Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate (1994).
This shot was taken on the Malecón, the road and esplanade running along the shore, where the locals gather at the end of the afternoon to fish, have a beer, watch the ocean or just relax with friends and family. We see two of them chatting on the seawall, tiny figures against the sweep of the sky
Casablanca, a village in the borough of Regla, can only be reached by a 10-minute ferry ride or by bus. “When you arrive by ferry, you see a small mountain,” says Kervern. “It looks like a deserted island.” In fact, the mountain is covered with greenery and small houses reached by stairways. He ventured up many of them to see what he could see, walking for hours and getting lost. “I loved it,” he says.
Tourism has not been overdeveloped in Casablanca, which attracts visitors with its natural setting and for the Morro Castle, a 16th-century fortress guarding the entrance to Havana Harbor; the 18th-century San Carlos de la Cabaña fortress, used by Che Guevara as his headquarters for a time during the Cuban Revolution; and Cristo de la Habana, a 60-foot-high marble statue of Christ that was installed just before the beginning of the revolution.
“This shot was taken behind the hill,” says Kervern. “I just kept walking without knowing where I was going and came upon this house and its garden.”
Regla is a town on Havana Bay in the borough of the same name. Reachable only by boat or car, it offers an escape from the urban world of Havana. Voodoo is still very important in this neighborhood, says Kervern. “You see many people dressed all in white floating flowers in the sea.”
“This shot was taken in the center of Regla, almost in the jungle. The farther you go, the fewer houses there are. It feels like you have left the city and are walking into the
interior of the country.”
Kervern walked from central Havana to Cojimar, a small fishing village, an excursion that took him about five hours. “Walking is wonderful,” he says. “You see so many things you’d never see otherwise.”
Cojímar, which provided the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, became a tourist attraction after the novel’s publication in 1952.
After getting caught in a downpour, Kervern started walking quickly in the direction of the center and came to a highway which, luckily for him, was on the route of the bus back
to Centro and his hotel.