Review: An Island Called Home (2)

A review by Kelsy Timler.  Written for ANTH 300 (Feb. 2011).

Sitting in a small cafe I completely lost track of time, surprising myself as I turned the page to find the bibliography. I had read it all in one sitting. Behar’s journey through history, memory, and identity is engaging, and the entire experience, rather than being complimented by Mayol’s works, seems instead to be triggered by the collection of black and white photographs.

Behar traces her personal connection with Jewish Cuba, a place she left at a young age, and returned to years later, her anthropologically inquisitive mind and personal memories driving her to find those that remained after the mass exodus of Jewish people from Cuba that was ignited by Fidel Castro’s rise to power.

Her dialogue with the Jewish communities residing in Cuba today, as well as the images she provides for us alongside her text have a definitively nostalgic feel to them. She explains in the beginning pages how her faded photographs of her birthplace acted as a replacement for the Cuban soil that she didn’t exactly remember, yet could not forget. Through her travels to and from Cuba she creates an ongoing remembering of that past, and it’s connections with the present day Jewish identity of her motherland.

Flipping through and gazing at the predominantly solemn faces of the Jewish Cubans she interviewed over the course of her studies there, the distant memory of Roland Barthe’s Camera Lucida (1980) began to echo in my mind, his use of the photograph in that book, as well as his explanation of how the photograph, in itself, represents death.

With the click of a shutter the image is captured, arrested in time. Forever static. That moment will never again exist, it is deceased, the still image the only existing evidence that it ever occurred. Memory is subjective, fickle even, and from the death of any given moment springs the evolution of that story, the hyperbolizing and alteration of that past action, continually created, and recreated over time. But the photograph traps that moment, there is no room for the subjective self to grow, it is caged in it’s reality, it’s absoluteness eternalized.

Each photograph Behar offers was captured, like a moth pinned to the entomologist’s board, because of her melancholic longing for a past, and a future which she  left at a young age. I find it eloquently fitting that the sense of loss she felt, the need to discover the lost moments, began in cemeteries as she searched for stories of the buried Jews of Cuba. Were they visited by their kin, or had their families fled, adding themselves into the human diaspora? From the real estate of the dead to the living Jewish communities spread throughout Cuba, Behar seeks to recover something lost, a sense of place and time, while Mayol’s photographs promise the preservation of specific moments of her voyage.

The irony of her use of the photograph to try and create a living connection is not lost on Behar, who calls them “the album of [her] return to a forbidden home.” Her despondent reminiscing of Cuba, the upheaval and loss of the context with which she left, all are cumulative to the sense of emotional drainage Behar’s writings inspire. She even refers to the photographic murder feared by anthropologists such as Margaret Mead. Yet it is with a deep understanding of memory and possession that Behar enters into her photo journey. Her connection with the place and the people allows her to stop time, to take the photograph, the possessed subject, and recreate a dialogue around it. There is no sense of trespassing or using the peoples forever trapped between the covers of her book. She doesn’t enter into homes, leaving nothing behind and stealing away with the still life images, the captive people in Mayol’s negatives. She relates their conversations, their personalities, their family relations and works within the community. She eats with the Jewish people that Mayol photographs, she brings them commodities from the United States, she enters into a contract. This contract is safe from contamination because of how bound she is to the images, for in printing the photographs, she ensnares these moments in time, but they are not merely for the sake of adding another published work beneath her name.  They are, in her words, a memoryscape. Any misuse of the photographic deaths she presents to the world would not only tarnish the black and white faces of those represented, but also her memories. It was with the utmost respect for the power of the still image that she entered this project.