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Photo Show Looks Both Ways Across Florida Straits

Jeffrey Cardenas/Yanela Piñeiro
The works combine photographs taken by both photographers, who were working back-to-back in Havana.

  The photo exhibit "Cómo lo vemos a Usted (y cómo nos ven)" was already under way when Cuba and the United States announced last December that the two countries would resume diplomatic relations.

Credit Jeffrey Cardenas/Yanela Piñeiro

The show -- in English, "How We See You (And How You See Us)"  — opened nine days after that historic announcement, showing at National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. On Thursday, Oct. 1, it opens for its first showing in the U.S., at The Studios of Key West.

The project is a collaboration between photographers Jeffrey Cardenas, who lives in Key West, and Yanela Piñeiro, a young Cuban photography student whom Cardenas met through the director of the Academy of Photographic Art in Havana. She was 15 when the images for this project were shot.

"When she picks up a camera, she is a genius. She is a savant, photographically," Cardenas said.

Credit Jeffrey Cardenas/Yanela Piñeiro

The two photographers set up identical photo booths in Plaza Vieja in Havana and invited anyone who was interested to have their photos taken.

I conceptualized this project as being a way to communicate this incredible change that's happening," Cardenas said. "I can speak a little bit of Spanish. My grandfather was born in Santa Clara. But I'm still what they call in Cuba an extranjero, a stranger. So I was unable to write this narrative of change."

By collaborating with Piñeiro, taking photographs of the same person, Cardenas said they established a dialogue between neighbors who are so close, geographically, but have been separated for so long.

"People would walk first into my little backdrop and I would talk to them in my bad Spanish and try to establish a rapport. There was no posing and there were no props and there was no background. It was just a focus on the person, on their eyes and their hands and their faces."

Credit Jeffrey Cardenas/Yanela Piñeiro

After Cardenas took his images, the subjects would move to Piñeiro's backdrop, which was identical to the one Cardenas was using.

"Literally hundreds of people stood in line to do this. There were young children. There were people in their 90s. There were pregnant women. There were men wielding machetes," Cardenas said.

Cardenas and Piñeiro were fascinated to find how their images were similar — and how they differed.

"The young people looked at us the same. They certainly didn't have the context of history that the older people did," Cardenas said. "The people of my generation who have felt the hardships in Cuba the most, went through that special period, they looked at me clearly with a sense of suspicion and wariness. Whereas when Yanela made their portrait, the images were much softer and more warm, as they obviously would be to a neighbor."

Cardenas said the images, and the collaboration between cultures, are both important steps as Cuba and the U.S. explore a new relationship after decades of estrangement. Piñeiro just received a visa to visit  the U.S. for the exhibit opening this week. The director of the Museum of Fine Arts is also expected to attend.

Credit Jeffrey Cardenas/Yanela Piñeiro

"Cuba is going to change so rapidly. How the Cubans look at us and how we look back at the Cubans is going to be essential for the future," he said. "We have a really rocky history. It's been over half a century that these people have been isolated from those of us in the United States. I think it's almost anthropological in the way that we look at these both from an American perspective and from a Cuban perspective, how we see them and how they see us."

"Cómo lo vemos a Usted"  opens with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 1 and will be on display at The Studios of Key West through the month of October. A book of photos from the project is available from Amazon.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.