Since he left a job as an advertising exec to become a photographer, Michael Dweck has been producing lovingly rendered studies of modern tribes. His 2004 book, The End: Montauk, N.Y., presented an idealized vision of contemporary surf culture on Long Island's South Shore, while 2008's Mermaids captured the beauties who perform in underwater "mermaid" shows in the Florida tourist town of Weeki Wachee. Dweck's latest, Habana Libre (Damiani, $65), mixes photojournalism and fantasy to present a collective portrait of the young people of Cuba's burgeoning creative class—who, unbeknownst to the outside world, have forged a thriving arts community and nightlife scene—at work and at play. Here, Dweck recalls the crazy party where he discovered this demimonde, talks about hanging with Fidel Castro's son, and offers his prediction for Cuba's creative future.
DETAILS: How did you learn that this subset of Cuban society even existed?
Michael Dweck: I knew there was a vibrant music and arts scene, so I blindly took a trip down. I met a Brit who'd been living there 19 years, who invited me to a party that was just incredible: about 200 people in the back of a house on the ocean with a pool in the middle. It was maybe one in the morning, and there'd been a hurricane far to the south, so there were these 15-foot waves coming over a seawall onto the people dancing around the pool. It was about 95 degrees and humid. Everybody knew each other. There were filmmakers, writers, actors, models, painters mixed together, and you could tell they'd known each other for years. I learned that this happens every night in Havana.
DETAILS: So you just started introducing yourself?
Michael Dweck: Someone walked up to me and said, "What are you doing here?" When I told him, he said, "My brother's a photographer, maybe he can help you." So we met the next day, and he comes in with a bunch of people. He'd introduced himself to me as Alex Castro, but I didn't know that this was Fidel's son, and here come all the brothers and the wives, and we're talking about art—about what it's like to be an artist in Cuba. What I learned was these people travel freely, and they have cars and access to good materials—canvases and film and stuff like that—because the government realizes you need talented people to have a good society. The people in the book are all one big group of friends.
DETAILS: How did you gain their trust?
Michael Dweck: It took a while because they just inherently don't trust Americans. Every time I came down there—I made eight trips—I'd have a big dinner party and invite everybody. I also showed my photographs that I took the time before. My objective was to show the secret life of this creative class, to make a project about seduction, and that's what this book is—it's an allegory of seduction.
DETAILS: There are some wonderfully evocative images, like a series in which a couple named Javier and Januaria are making out in the back of a car, then the car seems to break down and she takes off. What really happened?
Michael Dweck: I'm trying to lead you, almost like a movie might. I was just going out with people, and in that scene—well, cars break down all the time in Cuba. If you look carefully, you'll see that car is made out of, like, 30 different cars because there's no car parts, no factories, no stores. So it's normal that you go out, your car breaks down, and you try to fix it. Everybody knows how to fix everything there. And that's what happened that night—Januaria was like, "Let's go out dancing," and the car breaks down, and after two hours of him fixing it, she said, "I'm leaving," and hitchhiked.
DETAILS: What else does this group do?
Michael Dweck: There are hundreds of fashion designers, so you have a show every night of the year at 8 and 10 o'clock at this place called La Maison. If you model, you're welcomed into that farandula, which means "clique." Another farandula is based on reggaeton music, which they call Cubaton, because Cubans think they invented everything. Cubans are so proud. They'll tell you they have the best of everything—the best engineers, the best architects, the best artists, the best musicians—and they do have some amazingly talented people.