The first kitten I photographed during my trip to Cuba is probably dead now, the poor thing.
Margot and I were wandering a neighborhood in Havana when we were invited into the casa of a couple named Justine and Pedro. Margot was more comfortable speaking Spanish, so she spoke with Justine about the condition of the home.
The interior of the place was unexpected because I had only seen our host casa, which was well furnished and cleaned top-to-bottom twice a week. The walls of Justine and Pedro's had faded crumbling tiles and one room had a non-functioning toilet. As I understood, Justine wanted us—tourists—to see what the typical condition of a casa in Cuba was like. It was incredibly run-down.
Margot spoke with Justine about her family as I wandered to take photos. It was then that I noticed a tiny body rounding the corner in silence: a kitten.
As the kitten got closer I was able to see its mangled hind legs. The casa had tile flooring and the kitten drug its small, skinny body across the floor with its front legs to get around. I don’t remember asking Justine about it, but I do remember feeling an ache of empathy for it and the short life it would likely have. It stared at me with yellow eyes, looking pretty sickly.
The kitten retreated into a back room and Justine continued to show us her home. She showed us her pet rabbits and talked about her son, who was studying abroad. I took photos of Justine and Pedro with my instant camera as a thank you for showing us their home.
That night as I laid in my bed at the casa, I thought about the crumbling walls and the kitten’s broken legs.
Throughout the rest of my trip, I photographed many cats—mostly street cats in Havana and Trinidad.
I started saving the meat from breakfast in napkins that I then stuffed into a pocket of my camera bag. In Old Town Havana, I was nearly taken out by a taxi as I attempted to feed salami to a stray cat on the street.
A project organically unfolded. I would take their photo and thank them with a piece of breakfast meat if I remembered to bring it. At the end of the fifteen-day trip, I ended up with photos of dozens of different cats. Mitchell, one of our group, had jokingly dubbed my project “Fidel’s Felines.”
I asked our host if he thought Cubans were more dog-people or cat-people, and he seemed confused by my question (my own fault, I’m sure.) I had seen a lot of pet dogs as well as strays, but very few indoor cats. Just one in a window in Havana and the kitten at Justine and Pedro's.
Cats in the tourist-populated parts of Havana looked better off – well fed with food from the nearby restaurants. Neighborhood cats struggled more.
Toward the end of our trip, a few of us were walking through a neighborhood in Havana that was absolutely riddled with cats. They climbed into the trash cans and attempted to eat mango peels and watched with wide eyes as we walked by.
As we slowed down to take photos, a man came out from his home and frantically told us in Spanish: do not touch the cats.
Text and photos provided by Halie Chavez.