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It's not often that artists from the United States and Cuba work together in Havana. Collaboration between two photographers with life experiences takes a new look at Old Havana. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Nestor Marti is 38 and a photojournalist in Cuba's bustling capital city. Chip Cooper is 60 and known for artistic, composed shots of the Alabama countryside. Both of them typically work alone, but for the last two years they've been a team, walking the narrow streets and wide plazas of Old Havana.
Mr. NESTOR MARTI (Photojournalist, Cuba): You're working step by step, side by side, then you show me the picture, I show you the picture, or show him the pictures, and you make a different way. Not his way, not my way, it's our way, you know? It's like a balance, it's our dance.
ELLIOTT: But before they could fall into step, Marti says, they had to find a common bond. They discovered it in the work of Walker Evans, who had photographed Cuba in the 1930s before his seminal portraits of Alabama tenant farmers in the book "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men."
Chip Cooper says Evans provided inspiration for how they could work together, despite their different backgrounds.
Mr. CHIP COOPER (Photographer, Alabama): All that we thought about was let's take what Walker Evans did, and if it requires to be journalist or artist, it doesn't really matter. It's just gonna be.
ELLIOTT: The collaboration grew out of the Alabama-Cuba Initiative, an academic exchange program at the University of Alabama, where Cooper is a teacher and artist-in-residence.
The state of Alabama, with its port in Mobile, is a major exporter of agricultural products to Cuba an estimated $18.6 million worth in 2009 most of it chicken meat. State trade officials have long advocated building relationships with Cuba, should the U.S. ease trade restrictions.
Mr. COOPER: Why don't we start here with - this is Nestor's photograph that he took in a very popular square in Havana.
Mr. MARTI: It used to be a market in the 18th and 19th century.
ELLIOTT: Strolling through a recent exhibit at the University of Alabama, Nestor Marti says he and Cooper set out to document the restoration of Old Havana, the cultural and historical center of the island.
Mr. MARTI: We tried to show here the people of Havana, the feeling of a living city.
Mr. COOPER: Things happened very quickly. It's a moment of time.
ELLIOTT: That meant Chip Cooper had to ditch his trusty tripod.
Mr. COOPER: What Nestor does day in and day out in Havana, he's a street photographer and shoots with an artistic eye. Most of my work is in landscape. I live in a rural area of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. So what Nestor helped me do is to learn that spontaneity in an urban setting.
ELLIOTT: You can see that lesson in a striking portrait of an old man with a weathered face, intense eyes and a crooked Cuba baseball cap. Cooper says he noticed the man walking down the street some 60 feet away, and waited, camera-ready as the flow of people streamed by, his subject oblivious until the last minute.
Mr. COOPER: And what I waited for was eye contact between he and my lens. And it to me is one of my strongest photographs that says, I am a survivor. I have a right to be here.
Mr. MARTI: This guy lived a lot of things. Probably the most important part of the 20th century, okay? There was a lot change. He lived part of that, the revolution, all the process with the things, the good things, bad things, the wrong things, the right things.
ELLIOTT: The work includes intimate portraits like this, but also grander shots of the centuries-old architecture and colorful markets in Old Havana. And there were surprises, like when the duo stopped for a break from the midday sun in front of a large, corrugated metal garage-like door and noticed a smaller, 4-foot opening.
Mr. COOPER: And at the same moment Nestor and I see somebody come out of this hole bent over, opened the door and stepped out and closed this door.
Mr. MARTI: We say, wow, what is this? We discovered the place, or the place discovered us. Inside an evangelical church service, worshippers on wooden benches, eyes closed and arms raised in praise.
Mr. COOPER: It's a world within a world. And I think that really is what this exhibit is about - is on the surface it is one thing; when you start digging down, and you found a whole other world almost like a forbidden place.
ELLIOTT: About 200 of Cooper and Marti's images have been combined for an exhibit called "Havana - Side by Side," which has been on display in both Cuba and Tuscaloosa. They're working now on a book that will be published later this year.
Mr. COOPER: I hope from this body of work and what Nestor and I felt from the very beginning is to give a glimpse into a society that most Americans really don't know much about other than Fidel, cigars and Cuba is an island. That this is island of people very much like us. They have their hopes and dreams, they have their goals and they have their desperation.
ELLIOTT: The final portrait in the collection is a woman, her head wrapped in a white scarf, hands raised to her chin, eyes gazing upward.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
SIMON: And you can see photos from the exhibition on NPR's photoblog, The Picture Show, on our website NPR.org.
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