As photojournalist Greg Kahn, author of Havana Youth explains, roughly half of Havana’s 2.1M residents are under age 35, a paradox when juxtaposed with their physical surroundings and infrastructure — little to no advertising beyond government propaganda, 1950s-era American cars alongside Russian Ladas from the 1980s, decrepit residential buildings where the water is shut off sometimes as often as every other day. Most Cubans don’t have WiFi Internet access in their homes (except through exorbitantly expensive cell phone data packages), so connecting to the world takes a real effort, especially in pandemic times. And yet—young people in Havana are some of the most trendy and enterprising people on earth.
Kahn, 39, is an American fine art photographer from Rhode Island who has focused his lens on a generation of fashion-forward young Cubans going to great lengths to express their own style, opinions, and tastes. In 2011, Greg was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his work documenting the Great Recession’s impact on foreclosures in Florida. The following year he traveled to Havana for the first of seven trips, leading up to his 2019 photobook, Havana Youth (Yoffy Press, 2019, 144 pgs).
“The young Cubans that I have talked to are not burdened by the past. They are redefining what it means to be Cuban.”Greg Kahn
Havana’s millennials were born after the start of the country’s Special Period, when the ripple effect of the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in massive shortages. As children and teens many had only one pair of shoes and maybe a few outfits beyond the ubiquitous school uniforms, which haven’t changed much since the start of the Revolution. Today, those young people who grew up with so little are “embracing what can be considered materialistic,” Greg said in a 2019 interview with Newsweek. “But it’s also a way for them to connect and become part of the larger conversation. This is about the rise of individuality in a country built on collectivism.”
“They told me they hate this attitude of ‘I want to go down there and see the crumbling buildings,”Greg Kahn
In 2008, Raúl Castro began to expand the private sector and loosened restrictions for Cubans to travel internationally. And with the move to normalize diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba in late 2014, tourism on the island skyrocketed as did the number of Cuban Americans returning to visit family.
American tourists’ expectations are often turned on their heads after a first visit to the island: At private parties and mainstream venues like the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, Cuba’s hip hop and electronic dance scenes are making ground on the stereotypical sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club; many young Cubans chat on iPhones and sport the latest hipster jeans from abroad; and graphic design —long a powerhouse within Cuba’s extensive visual arts tradition— has evolved with the times.
“They told me they hate this attitude of ‘I want to go down there and see the crumbling buildings,’” Greg said of the young Cubans he interviewed. “‘We live here. We want these buildings to be fixed. We’re a generation that wants to turn this around. We want to stay here. We love Cuba. We love being Cuban. And we want that to be depicted as well.’”
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Several new Cuban brands such as Wasasa Bug Bag and trend-setting locales like the bar-slash-fashion house Color Café have followed in the footsteps of pioneer Clandestina. Until recently, Cuban ‘mulas’ frequently traveled back and forth to countries such as Mexico and Panama to purchase goods and resell them back at home. Fashion blogger Miguel Leyva, then 22, explained the cultural significance of expression through fashion: “Clothes have a strong connotation here … It means to be free.”
“The young Cubans that I have talked to are not burdened by the past,” said Greg. “They are redefining what it means to be Cuban.”
A couple years ago, Startup Cuba interviewed Greg prior to the release of his book Havana Youth — watch the full interview here. In fall 2020, his photographs are on display at the Cody Gallery at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia (sneak preview below). If you happen to be in town before it closes on November 24th, grab your mask and check it out in person.