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Photographs reimagine Havana as a pastel-colored dreamland

Published 20th March 2019
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Photographs reimagine Havana as a pastel-colored dreamland
Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
Two vintage cars sit outside a crumbling movie theater. A narrow street drips with sunlight, its pastel facades and peeling shutters set against a saturated sky. A stray dog saunters past a wall painted with the words, "En cada barrio revolución," a famous Cuban slogan translating as: "In every neighborhood, revolution."
These scenes, captured by French photographer Helene Havard, will be familiar to those who have visited Havana. Yet the photos' unnaturally vibrant hues -- enhanced in post-production using imaging software -- reimagine the Cuban capital as a sleepy paradise.
"Instead of seeing it as dark and decayed, I tried to imagine it a bit like a dream," Havard said on the phone from French Polynesia, where she lives and works. "I tried to see (Cuba) in a very different way -- to try to imagine it as something dreamier, because it's not easy (living there)."
Her images spotlight the architectural traditions of Havana, a melting pot of French, Spanish and Moorish influences. The city is famed for its mix of Art Deco, neoclassical and baroque forms.
But beyond celebrating Havana's visual appeal, the photographer's motivations were political. Driven by her commitment to freedom and curiosity about the country's political identity, Havard conceived the project as a form of escapism from communist rule. She points to the economic sanctions and restricted liberties that have endured in Cuba since Fidel Castro swept to power in 1959.
"I know there's an embargo and a lot of people are suffering because of it; I know it's decayed almost everywhere," Havard said. "So when I was in the streets I was thinking about how it must be very difficult to live there, because you can't move, there are many things you can't do (and) you just have to follow the rules.
"This type of country is like a mystery to me, so I tried to understand it. I think it's because I really (value) freedom."
The photographer is wary of sugarcoating challenging social and political conditions ("This is just my way of seeing things," she insisted). Her aesthetic, instead, relies on the contrast between beauty and struggle -- a juxtaposition she hopes to replicate in other communist and post-communist countries, including Russia and North Korea.
Despite her political leanings, however, Havard's Instgram-friendly style was developed during her many years in wedding photography, which makes up the majority of her work.
"Working in the wedding industry, I've been using pastel colors for a long time," she said. "I like the dreamy style. I've done it a lot since the beginning of my career, so I just started to apply it to travel photography."
And if Havard's palette and composition evoke those of movie director Wes Anderson, it's purely coincidental. Parallels are often drawn, the photographer said, though she also admitted to being unfamiliar with Anderson's work until recently.
"I was surprised because I've never seen his films!" she said. "When I was compared to him, I discovered his work and it's very, very nice, so it was a great honor to be compared to him. (His movies) look really dreamy, and it's probably something that's going to influence me in the future."