Then There Was Us

Then There Was Us

Motherland – A study of national and cultural identity

Sergio Leyva Seiglie describes his practice as “an exploration of how we perceive belongingness and notions of identity through national and cultural identity”. A Cuban born photographer and now residing in Sydney, Australia, he speaks to Oliver Endicott about his most recent photographic series, Motherland.

I’d first like to ask you to tell me a little bit about yourself, what your background is and how you initially got into photography?

My name is Sergio Leyva Seiglie. I was born and raised in Havana, Cuba, one of “the last generation that dreamed of being a cosmonaut” as a close friend of mine still says. We were the last generation that spent their childhood under the shadow of the USSR. I was 8 years old when Gorbachev left the Kremlin; the Soviet flag was lowered and the State Anthem was played for a last time. I still remember the immediate effects. Sorry, I’m digressing. 

I (literally) fell into photography in 2008, right after I finished university. I studied software engineering, but after two years coding I was feeling empty and desolate. The funny thing is that I had never had much artistic inclination, but a friend sent me a PDF about street photography, filled with photos of what I first thought were just photos of people in different situations, taken in various places around the world. I was intrigued by them, and over the hundreds of times I looked at them I slowly realized why. Behind the differences, beneath the surface, were common bonds, no matter where the photo was taken. We all love our kids and do the best we can for them; we all seek and enjoy the company of our loved ones; we all suffer when we are wronged or bereaved; we all enjoy a good meal, and we all seek moments of introspection. We have an intrinsic need to belong, to believe in something, to be part of something. Having then never been able to leave Cuba, and having grown up being taught that Cuba had taken such a different path from our neighbours, realizing that more unites people elsewhere than divides us was a revelation. I knew that this was something I had to do.  I wanted to show the common human bond through photography.

So I took leap of faith and quit my job. And then what followed was an endless roaming through the streets of Havana, photographing. I shot film not as aesthetic choice but as a necessity, and also as a challenge to myself. I had the luck of inheriting my grandfather’s Nikon S2, a basic yet lovely 1954 rangefinder camera with a fast 50mm lens. Now looking back I’m quite pleased that I started my photography journey using film and a full mechanical camera. It allowed me be more engaged with the photographic process, to develop a more tangible relationship with the medium. With film I felt I was actually creating something physical, something real.

Digressing again. 

I managed to enrol on a photojournalism diploma, started freelancing and working as a camera assistant and unit production photographer in Cuba’s International School of Cinema. Then in 2011 I started working with (the wonderful person that I’m lucky enough to call my wife) historian Dr. Emma Christopher on her documentary They Are We, which tells the story of the return of a group of Afrocuban descendants to their ancestral homeland in Sierra Leone. The film was completed in 2014, coinciding with me moving to Australia with Emma. 

Finding a sense of identity and belonging whether nationally, culturally or socially seems to be an important theme that runs throughout your work, particularly in ‘Motherland’. Could you tell me about why you decided to make this project and why you thought it was important?

I was raised by two generations that felt betrayed by Cuban Socialism’s utopian promises.  At the same time, I grew up exposed to constant state propaganda on TV, at school, virtually everywhere. We were told that we were the good guys building a better future, giving our help selflessly to nations in need. I was expected to eventually become what Che Guevara called The New Man: an enlightened being with higher consciousness embodying the ideology of Marxism-Leninism. So I grew up caught between state indoctrination and family canon, my self-identity confused. I remember feeling rootle­­ss when I hit my teens. I loved my country, but my deepening conviction was that I would find belonging elsewhere.

I moved to Australia in 2014, and as I embraced my new home in Sydney I reflected on my older one. My perceptions of Cuba changed through separation and time, giving way to a more nuanced understanding. In 2016 I made a sudden and brief trip to Cuba to visit family and friends. During those intense 6 days I photographed as much as I could, my gut telling me that it might be the last chance to do it. Back in Australia, the photographs I made unexpectedly left me feeling exiled and detached. The place I had left no longer existed. I had changed and so had Cuba. The country into which I was born is quickly passing into undecipherable memory. Nevertheless, I realized I still had a chance to reconcile with my motherland, to confront my clashing childhood memories, and to acknowledge and reclaim the people, places and things that made me who I am today. Motherland is the visual journey of that reconciliation.

It’s an interesting thought that you are almost trying to find and capture something that isn’t truly there anymore. Photography is quite intrinsically attached to memory in that sense, sometimes you tend to remember where you were in your life and what you were feeling when you took that photo rather than remembering the photo or moment itself, it’s only later when we see the image we reconnect to our former self at that moment. Your photography certainly expresses a certain personal and emotive sense of longing of what was and what might have been.

Was there a particular moment you realised that Cuba was no longer how it used to be or perhaps you saw it from a different perspective?

I think it was more of a process than a particular moment. Cuba experienced significant change during the first years that I was gone, and I could not help but feel left out. There will doubtless be other future events in my country of origin that I won’t be a part of, and all of those will eventually amount to even more estrangement. It’s a classic immigrant story. When I made my first visit back to Cuba from Australia, it was apparent that the person that my family and friends had waved goodbye to years before was not the same person who now returned. 

The change was partly deliberate. Before I had left, everything had felt like a total mess, so I hoped to start life again with a clean slate in Australia. What also happened, was that after moving to Sydney I could think more objectively about Cuba. I had a point of comparison. It was, and is, more than a simple comparison between the economics of life in a developed country and a developing one. Living overseas gave me an opportunity to think about my country of birth in multi-faceted ways. I pondered my childhood, wondered what had been in my head growing up and how much of it had been due the influence of my family or the state, or a combination of both. 

I think I am only just beginning to understand how the photos are permeated with longing for something that never had the chance of really being. I photographed what left a mark on me growing up, but as a child I did not process why these things would remain significant to me. With Motherland I’m trying to go back to a time largely lost from my life–and I time in my life that I was perhaps lost– using photography to re-experience those unacknowledged memories in order to understand.

In a broader sense, I think that’s one of the most captivating parts of photography, its ability to use the outside world to map and create meaning to what’s going on in our internal world. Whilst photographs are created out of our external environment and our reality, they still exist in a cerebral sense. I can’t tell you the number of times I have had an image in my head that will probably never exist or have ever of existed in a physical sense. I’m sure it’s the same with memory, we are our own unreliable narrators and photography is perhaps helping us to solidify our footing across our psychological terrain. I guess that’s what most of us as photographers are pursuing, some perhaps getting closer than others.

I couldn’t agree more on how unreliable narrators we are of our own life story, and how malleable and deceptive our memories can be. Honestly, I didn’t have any pictures in my mind when I started this project. I only knew that I had to go back to Cuba to visit several places, but the reason why eluded me at the time. The same with the people I photographed. I knew I had to go and meet them, talk to them, spend some time with them, but I had no specific photographs in my mind. I knew I would end up photographing some of them, but it was not the main reason to meet them. Maybe, and this applies to the places as well, I was hoping they would trigger something, and that something would then “cause” a photo. Fortunately it did. My hope then was that meaning would come afterwards with the help of the resulting photographs. But was this process one of faux memory creation, or the proverbial Proustian Madeleine bringing back the context of my unacknowledged/forgotten/pushed down childhood memories? At least I have the resulting photographs, which like a Rosetta Stone helped me to understand/explain why such feelings and memories arose and, as you said, help me give meaning to what’s going on in my internal world. It’s a work in progress though, but I think that’s the bittersweet beauty of this project, like a diary ripped apart, pages that don’t show the dates of entry, but nevertheless I intend to put together again.

See more from Sergio Leyva Seiglie and Oliver Endicott.


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