The New York Times, April 2013

Blogging a Bridge From Havana

By David Gonzalez. Apr. 3, 2013.

Havana is a city of flags, says Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, a Cuban blogger whose photographs show them dangling from telephone wires, draped over headstones and reflected in windows and puddles. The tricolor standard is everywhere.

So, too, is Cuban state security.

They hauled him in one day in 2009 for questioning over a flag photo he never even published. Somehow, he said, they got their hands on a composition of his in which a nude appeared in the same frame as the remnants of a flag. They put him on warning, he said, saying he was at grave risk of committing a crime.

“They said I could get as much as four years for desecrating a national symbol,” he recalled. “I was being incriminated for a photograph that I hadn’t even circulated. I thought what I did in my own house was mine, but he was telling me it was defamatory. He said ‘If they found out in Miami, they’ll stone you. They’re counterrevolutionaries, but they love the flag.’ It was strange.”

He can relate to strange: he is a writer who relishes wordplay and a photographer who captures everyday abstractions and details along Havana’s streets. He is among the island’s small group of independent bloggers who have used the Internet to express themselves and confound both authorities and outsiders.

“He is giving us the poetics of the city that is not touristy, nostalgic or exotic,” said Ana M. Dopico, a professor at New York University who recently participated in a New York conference with Mr. Pardo Lazo and Yoani Sanchez, the island’s best-known blogger. “He is giving people a way to read the politics of daily occurrences, like he does in a picture of a man being arrested on the Malecón. He juxtaposes the eternal beauty of the city and the real political urgencies of the moment.”

Mr. Pardo Lazo’s route to photography — and the dissident blogosphere — was circuitous. Originally trained as a molecular biochemist, he worked in pharmaceutical research for five years before he “got bored” and decided to pursue writing. He had published four well-received books of short stories and started contributing columns to a friend’s blog.

“I had total independence,” he said. “That’s when the problems started.”

One piece — “La Muerte del Caballo,” or “The Horse’s Death” — started it, he said. It was his rumination on the sight of a dead horse that had fallen near a banner of Fidel Castro. But there is also a double meaning, since “Caballo” is also a popular reference to Castro.

After that, “Boring Home,” a fifth book that he was set to publish, never did. Friends of his relayed “Sicilian messages” — word from officials — that he would never publish again. Instead, he took to blogging, which led to him to posting photos online, too. He had long been shooting with an old Russian film camera and for a while worked as a photographer for movies and television. By 2009, he had set up two of his own blogs.

Cubans on the island have limited Internet access, but that’s not the case overseas. On his photo blog, “Boring Home Utopics,” Mr. Pardo Lazo has fielded “commissions” from Cubans living overseas who were aching to see old neighborhoods, parks and in one couple’s case, a church where they had been married before going into exile. Mr. Pardo Lazo said he did more than 40 of these assignments, each time trying to conjure the emotions that had been felt there decades earlier.

“I tried to feel in myself their feelings and what they had once seen there,” he said. “Here was a chance to capture that. But those letters broke my heart.”

“Here are the stones thrown at me when they left,” the old man said.

Mr. Pardo Lazo now sees his blog as a bridge, one built image by image, step by step. His images are often abstract, and there are only a few with people. In some cases, the vastness of the sea overwhelms the crowds that line the streets or plazas. Some have a sly humor, others an abstract beauty. Birds flit freely through the skies, while rafters bounce on a horizonless sea. He hopes the pictures start a conversation, especially when a reader sees something that he missed.

“I have my own interpretation but I don’t write it,” he said. “It can be read in different ways. Little by little, you create a new reader who understands the codes of silence, of nostalgia for Cuba. I’d like to get away from the black-and-white pictures of Cuba. I’m interested in art, not pamphleteering.”

Still, he and other independent bloggers have not escaped the scorn of Raul Castro’s government and its supporters. When he organized the country’s first independent photo festival, a pro-government blog accused him of wanting to present an image of the country that would make it ripe for a foreign intervention. The same blog ridiculed his and Ms. Sanchez’s participation in recent academic conferences in the United States, saying they had no academic credentials.

While the current generation of bloggers has mostly escaped the fate that befell independent journalists who were tried and given long sentences in 2003 (but since pardoned), their work brings routine harassment with short-term detentions. Mr. Pardo Lazo said that before Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in March 2012, his cellphone was cut off and he was brought in to a police station for several days.

“Raul has found ways to repress and harass these people without leaving an illegal mark or any legal trace,” said Ted Henken, a Baruch College professor who has written about the Cuban blogosphere. “His policy is a constant wave of arrests and detentions often without any charges to prevent people from attending events or to terrorize people and have them re-evaluate the costs of being involved in this.”

Mr. Pardo Lazo resists any easy categorization. Rangy and longhaired, wrapped in an overcoat with a flowing scarf, he looks more like a hippie than a dissident. Like with his pictures, read into him what you will.

“Those pictures are like a probe,” he said. “You put it out there and the exiles know what it is, even if they don’t know what I’m saying. The politicians think it’s more of the same about dissidence and that the city is falling apart. Fine. But I’m beyond that. Maybe it’s just about the light and the shadow.”

Follow @dgbxny and @nytimesphoto on Twitter. Lens is also on Facebook.

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