Richard Sharum remembers his first impressions of Cuba forming when he was taught about the Cuban Missile Crisis at school in Corpus Christi, Texas. “Cuba was always seen as this forbidden place,” he says. “We were taught – and I haven’t been able to find out how true this is – that some of the rockets were aimed towards Corpus Crisis, because it was a giant naval base.”
By his early 20s, Sharum, who was then working as a photographer, says he’d become fascinated by Cuba: “I was really curious about the people that lived there, because the only Cubans that I met were exiled in Texas, so I didn’t really have any sort of understanding of who Cubans were as a people.”
It was only in 2015, when then-president Barack Obama lifted the 54-year trade embargo on Cuba, resulting in an influx of US tourism, that Sharum finally made the decision to travel there. “Quite frankly, I wanted to see Cuba before American tourists were able to screw it up,” he says.
Over the course of several journeys between January 2016 and November 2019, Sharum travelled from the northern to the southern shorelines, across to the western provinces, and to the eastern villages deep in the Sierra Maestra region of Cuba to photograph the country.
From the outset, Sharum was determined to focus on the less publicised aspects of Cuba, presenting an alternative vision to the classic cars and the colourful streets of Havana usually associated with the country. “My first inclination, just intuitively, was to get the fuck away from Havana as quickly as possible and to go to the countryside, because I wanted to see Cuban people for who they really were.” This led him to the farmers, or ‘campesinos’ – people who live off the land, typically in remote areas of the countryside. Despite forming the backbone of Cuba, living in relative isolation lives means that this community are rarely photographed and often overlooked.
The photographs Sharum captured on his trips are now collected in a new book, titled Campesino Cuba (GOST Books), which captures the campesinos’ everyday farming practices – such as harvesting coffee beans and gathering cattle – alongside school, social events, and moments of rest, in dramatic black and white.
Initially, Sharum was interested in documenting the huge exodus young male agricultural workers from rural communities migrating to urban areas. “This has huge implications Cuba’s agriculture, because it’s already hard to feed all the people in Cuba, as you can see recently with the protests that are happening,” Sharum explains. Despite the upheaval this is creating in Cuba’s urban areas, for the largely self-sufficient campesinos in rural area, “there’s not a lot of strife, political, social, or otherwise… It’s very, very peaceful,” he says.
Eventually, Sharum expanded his project to incorporate photographs of women and children. “I was immediately struck by how hospitable, and how loving they were,” he remembers. “In all my years of shooting the campesinos, I never once had any inclination of hostility towards me.”
These experiences have made Sharum deeply appreciative of their way of life. “It was so refreshing to go from town to town, village to village, and not be bombarded by advertisements, not be bombarded by political news,” he says. “Just be to be able to go to someone’s house, and to sit and talk with them […] We could all learn from them.”
Campesino Cuba is out now on GOST Books.