Student Art: Photographing a lost world

by Brook Gardner-Durbin

Traveling to Cuba from the United States is a federal offense, punishable by a fine of up to $10,000. Last summer though, on a University Scholars Program grant from Montana State University, Scotland Steele traveled to Cuba to take thousands of photographs. After culling the pictures down to seventeen, Steele unveiled the finished project on Friday, Oct. 11, at the Melvin Graduate Art Studios.

Steele is a 21-year-old junior, double-majoring in photography and latin american studies — two majors he was interested in long before he enrolled at MSU. “I have an uncle of Cuban descent,” said Steele, “ I grew up hearing stories [about Cuba].” When he was young, he found a broken camera and began pretending to take pictures. Both interests stuck with him throughout high school, where he took several beginning photography classes and four years of Spanish.

The exhibit, titled ‘La Lucha’ (The Fight), is focused on Cuba’s working class and the history of the island since the fall of the Soviet Union. Some of the exhibit focuses on ordinary people in their daily lives, while other pictures show the buildings, streets, cars or other aspects of the current living conditions in Cuba. While most photography classes at MSU focus on staged, planned-out photographs, Steele prefers exploring the cities and waiting for something spontaneous to catch his eye. “Street photography is my favorite,” explained Steele. Despite his interest, he still had a loose “to-do list” in mind while photographing the cities.

The trip allowed Steele to completely immerse himself in Cuban culture. “I was always looking for old people,” said Steele, as he tried his best to speak to the locals to learn more about their lives and the country’s history. He also took time to play baseball with the many children playing in the streets and made several friends along the way. Steele is still in contact with some of them; he is currently trying to help one of them travel to the United States.

[pullquote align=”right”]Several photographs in the exhibit show the tension between the older state organization — inherited from the days of the Soviet Union — and the more recent trend towards capitalism.[/pullquote]

Throughout the forty-day trip, Steele eschewed the upscale, glamorous hotels in favor of smaller sleeping arrangements known as ‘Casa Particular.’ “They’re sort of like hostels,” explained Steele, “Or a Bed-and-Breakfast.” Though they are still owned by the state, any Casa Particular is managed by an individual for profit.

Several photographs in the exhibit show the tension between the older state organization — inherited from the days of the Soviet Union — and the more recent trend towards capitalism. One photograph shows a man painting a white wall with white paint — one of many menial jobs provided by the state. Another is of a friend of Steele’s, Pacho, standing next to one of his bicycle taxis. The accompanying placard explains Pacho saved enough money to buy a bicycle, start his own business, purchase several more bicycles (he rents them out) and is currently saving to buy a car.

‘La Lucha’ is currently on display at the Melvin Graduate Art Studios, located at 2998 W. Lincoln Street. Other examples of Steele’s photography can be found on his website: 500px.com/scotland_steele.