Cuba, Beyond the Car Clichés

Photographer Jay Seldin's love and respect for the Cuban people shines in his work, "The Cubans," a collection of vintage photographs.

"Eduardo, a tobacco farmer, rolled each of us a cigar," Seldin says. "He lit mine, then his. Then he made us espresso and showed us around."
"Eduardo, a tobacco farmer, rolled each of us a cigar," Seldin says. "He lit mine, then his. Then he made us espresso and showed us around."
Photo by Jay Seldin

Photographer Jay Seldin first experienced the sense of community that links people in Cuba during his initial trip to the island in 2008, when Seldin was part of a group that received permission to visit the Havana Biennale.

“The people were so generous with themselves, with their lives,” says Seldin. In 2012, when travel restrictions were partly eased, Seldin wasted no time. “I’ve been back probably a dozen times now, and I still can’t wait to touch down and smell the earth there.”

That particular scent is often new for his travel companions. Seldin leads groups of 10 to 15 students on photographic journeys around the island through his Montclair-based business, Jay Seldin Photography Tours. Seldin’s approach to the tours—like his photographs of Cubans­­—goes beyond vintage American-car clichés.

“Cuban people let me come into their homes, let me photograph them and have coffee with them,” says Seldin. “They have a sweetness, an innocence. They aren’t paranoid about visitors.” You see that in the 80 photographs in The Cubans (Backyard Hammock Publishing, 2015), a remarkable record of intimate encounters with an endearing, seldom seen people.

The book is Seldin’s first in a photography career that spans more than three decades and includes solo exhibitions and residencies, such as the one at the Newark Museum that led to his initial Cuba trip. Its title is a nod to Robert Frank’s revelatory 1959 collection, The Americans.

“There’s a lot of symmetry between his work and my work,” Seldin says. “I’m not putting myself in his shoes…but I was inspired by him.” Cuba itself has had an impact. “I’ll always be inspired by the spirit and the grace of the Cuban people.”

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