“To solve a problem, a doubt, a difficulty, decide something or form an idea of what to do.” - RAE
Story and Photo by Dan Henderson © 2018
English is an organic, messy language; any one of us can make up a new word, and if adopted by enough people it becomes part of our lexicon. Consider “bling,” “bromance,” “locavore,” and my personal favorite, one that spellcheck – another made up word – has yet to learn, “Illiterati.” Spanish, on the other hand, has a much more organized and formal process. Some 300 years ago King Philip of Spain created the Royal Academy of Spanish, or RAE, to “fix the voices and vocabularies of the Castilian language with propriety, elegance, and purity.” In other words, to be the word police.
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Resolver, Havana, 2017. © 2018 Dan Henderson
But Cubans being the resourceful people that they are, have reshaped the official definition of the verb resolver to better describe their circumstances. To them it means doing what is necessary to survive. The dissident Cuban journalist Yoany Sanchez says, “we are specialists at finding everything that is censored, prohibited, and rationed.” I learn first hand how resolver works after mentioning to a Cuban friend my failure to find my favorite rum to bring home. He smiles, gives me his phone number, and tells me to call him after 3PM the next day. When I call, he instructs me to meet him in an hour on the veranda of a certain restaurant. Over beer at our clandestine meeting, I give him the agreed-upon price plus 10 CUC for his trouble. Soon, a sketchy-looking guy walks past us and into the restaurant, followed shortly thereafter by my friend. Sketchy-looking guy comes back out a few minutes later, gives me a surreptitious nod, and walks away. My friend then returns with three bottles of the Ron de Santiago that I have been unable to buy anywhere in Havana. I don't know how sketchy-looking guy got the rum, or what his relationship is to my friend, all I know is that they “resolve” my problem of no rum to take home, and theirs of making ends meet. And the adventure makes the best rum on the planet taste even better.
Alberto and his camera exemplify the Cuban notion of resolver. Most days, they can be found in Parque Central, a place frequented by tourists. With the exception of an ancient Kodak lens, the camera and tripod appear to be completely home-made, and to have been repeatedly modified and repaired. He brings his subject into focus by sliding the lens board in and out along steel rods that serve as rails, to which the lensboard is attached with bits of wire. His “focusing loupe” is one half of what I think were once a pair of reading glasses. His exposures are made the way the early photographers did, by removing a (home-made in his case) lens cap and counting seconds.
His process is even more amazing than his equipment. Having positioned and focused his subject, he reaches inside a cloth sleeve attached to the back of the camera, where completely by feel he replaces the ground glass with a small sheet of photo paper that he is somehow able to obtain from Germany.
After making the exposure he develops the paper, again by touch since it cannot yet be exposed to sunlight, in trays of developer and fixer inside the camera. A few minutes later, he withdraws the exposed and developed paper with a negative image. He then attaches this negative to a board in front of the lens and rephotographs it on another sheet of paper, repeating the focusing-exposure-development process all over again, this time producing a positive image.
The resulting picture is of dreadful quality. But the tourists, and in this case me too, happily pay him 3 CUC for the experience, and a unique souvenir of Havana. It humbles me to be in the same profession as Alberto when I consider how much more difficult it is for him to create a photograph, while I use precision made cameras, work in a fully equipped darkroom, and can have all of my supplies delivered to my door whenever I need them.