A Brief Moment in History

When I landed at the Havana airport on Saturday, March 25, I had with me a brand new black, hardcover journal.  When I left eight days later, it was completely full of journal entries, drawings, watercolor images and even a set of handprints.  I imagine one of the strongest memories everyone in my travel group will have of me from this trip is of me writing and sketching furiously during every spare second available.  I was rarely without this book in my hand, and often stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to jot down a note or a doodle.  It was that kind of journey - full of moments compelling enough to make me keep my pen moving, lest I forget about it two seconds later when another image or experience flooded my senses.

On one of these days I had the incredible fortune of meeting Raul Corrales, one of the foremost photographers during the Cuban revolution.  Known more as a photographer of the "common people" of the revolution, he had fascinating stories to tell.  The story of his first encounter with Fidel Castro, of a trip with him to Washington, DC, and stories of Che Guevara, whose office was just a few floors away from Corrales's.  We all sat around this man in his home and listened like pre-schoolers during storytime, eager to do nothing but hear more, more and still more.

What I loved most was hearing about how he became a photographer, which began with him admiring photographs in the magazines that lined the newsstand he passed by on his way to work as a busboy.  How he bought his first camera for $2 and became a janitor at a photographer's studio in order to learn all that he could about this trade.  As he cleaned the studio, he watched how film was processed and developed and how prints were made.  On one fortuitous day, a customer called needing a portrait taken but no photographers were available.  Raul Corrales volunteered to take on the job, and the manager agreed, believing it would be better to have a rookie photographer to blame for a bad photo than to say no to a paying customer.  Corrales packed a camera bag with the best equipment available and off he went.  "This", he said, "was the day I became a photographer."  He went on to explain the conversation between himself and the studio manager after he returned from the photo session and printed the photo:

Corrales:  "The photo is finished." Manager:  "OK, I will have our developers process the film." Corrales:  "I already did that." Manager (surprised):  "Well then I will have print made for the customer to see." Corrales:  "I already did that." Manager (surprised again):  "Oh, well let me see!"  (Inspects the photo). "You are no longer a janitor at this studio!" Corrales thinks he is being fired from his job, but he was actually being promoted to a studio photographer.  The rest is history.

Raul Corrales said he was strongly influenced by Walker Evans, that when he saw Evans's photographs from the Depression, he "...decided that if I have to work my whole life I am going to do something I love."  He spoke of the gratification he feels to have traveled, taken photos and exhibited his work all over the world.  He spoke of wanting his photography to be a reflection of the social problems of the times.  He spoke of many things, and then as we were all saying good-bye, taking turns to shake his hand and thank him for sharing part of his day with us, he shook my hand and looked into my eyes with the focus of a laser beam, and for a split second we were the only two human beings on the planet.  Of all the other hands he has held, of all the other world leaders, revolutionary fighters, artists, friends and admirers he has met, would he ever remember me?  I doubted it, but I would most assuredly remember him, and remember that instant.  This I knew without a doubt.

Often times it isn't until later that we realize how precious certain moments are, and even if we do have the awareness to recognize an experience that is rare and perhaps even once-in-a-lifetime when it occurs, sometimes unexpected twists and turns give these instances in our lives even greater significance.  My memories of this tiny shred of time with Raul Corrales now shines in a whole new light, because this past weekend I learned that he died on Saturday, April 15, just nineteen days after I met him.  His place in my treasure box of memories has now shifted ever so slightly, and taken on a more bittersweet flavor.  This artist - whose work captured a period in Cuba's history that is still playing itself out - played a large part in the lives of many as a result of his determination to live a life he loved.  Did he understand how much meaning was behind the words "Thank you" from all of us on that sunny Monday morning?  Did we?

Perhaps someday I will be 81 years old, telling stories of my travels and work to a small but eager audience, and I will tell the story of hearing Raul Corrales explain that if he was going to have to work his entire life, he was going to do something he loved.  Perhaps I will speak of that and explain that hearing this gave me a renewed sense of purpose in my work as an artist, and this story will lodge itself into someone else's brain, and they'll walk away from that experience wanting to learn more about who this Cuban photographer was.  If not, that is OK.  Raul Corrales did enough extraordinary work on his own to secure his place in history, but I admit I enjoy the thought of being able to play some teeny part in that by sharing this story as often as I can.

Because we all need inspiring stories.  We all need reminders that dreams do come true.