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The Photographer of the Precipice

Image of man smoking
  • By Iván de la Nuez
  • Issue 26
  • FableApril 2019


The Mammoth grazes at the edge of the precipice, where it also waters. White and still, it lowers its tusks into the ravine and peers out over the city and into the Mediterranean Sea.
Except the Mammoth isn’t a mammoth, it’s a museum. And the precipice isn’t a precipice, it’s a steep hill with a view of the city and, when the smog lifts, of the horizon line that divides sea from sky.
I photographed them myself—the city and the horizon—in the Subjective style, trying to imagine how the Mammoth might see them.
Even before the museum opened, I went there every week, climbing one of the three streets that led to its courtyard. And every time, when I reached the top of the hill, I would imagine my photographs adorning the museum walls, surrounded by people with their flutes of cava raised in celebration of my art.
At the beginning, the museum was going to have another name, but its pachydermic aspect put the local residents in mind of a sculpture of a mammoth plunked on top of the hill. Irina, the Russian woman who ran it, quickly picked up on the “popular outcry” and, instead of colonizing the territory, as contemporary museums so often do, decided to rename the museum as a gesture of empathy toward this neighborhood that had been so devastated by the economic crisis.
The neighborhood thanked her in return, but in its own way, by converting the courtyard of the Great Work into a skate park, an urban picnic area, a nighttime al fresco weed den, a place to guzzle beer from the Pakistani street vendors, and really any other imaginable use but one: entering the museum.
When it was still under construction as the future Museum of the Precipice, another Russian alerted me to its imminent opening. Ivan rented the room next to mine in an apartment where three of us lived full time with an ever-fluctuating stream of renters who came and went from the fourth bedroom without the slightest concern for those of us who lived there. From a curatorial perspective, you could say we three were the permanent collection and they were the traveling exhibition. I should also say that these renters were our source of secret income and open conflict with the rest of the neighborhood, given that their behavior could be less than predictable. Or maybe it was completely predictable, since it was guaranteed to involve some sort of scandal.
While it was Ivan the Russian who told me about the Mammoth, it was Carlos, our landlord (and my personal guide to the neighborhood’s underbelly), who first led me there. He had been living in the area for some time, and though he was in his seventies and just as destitute as we were, it was clear that he harbored in his past a wife, children, and a lost fortune. Proof of this included elegant manners and expensive clothing left over from his bygone status.
Carlos taught me about lunch with the nuns and other tricks for scoring a free meal, sometimes through charity and other times through solidarity. For him, it was about saving as much money as possible so he could afford to spend his thirty euros a day in the bars, where he would drink anxiously while studying the newspapers.
When the time came, he began to include me in what he referred to as his daily rounds, which consisted of going from bar to bar, drinking on a tab that would balloon until he collected his pension check. Then he’d pay what he owed—or rather what he drank—in a lump sum, only to start over again the next day.
“I charge everything to my Sant Genís Express.” That’s what he called his imaginary credit card, named after the neighborhood.
In addition to his daily rounds, Carlos also had nightly rounds, which always took place in the vicinity of the Mammoth, where his dealers circulated. Sometimes the transaction would occur in the bar by the museum, or in the neighboring woods, or (when he’d gone cold turkey for a while and didn’t have time for protocols) on a park bench.
I quickly grew to enjoy the daily rounds. This was partly due to Carlos' mentorship—“always pay for what you drink, but always after you’ve drunk it”—and partly because my arrival in the neighborhood had been preceded by a voyage that made me into a local celebrity.
I had arrived in Barcelona from Havana, not by plane but as a stowaway on a fishing vessel. After I disembarked, disguised as a member of the crew, I promptly filed for asylum at the nearest police station. The next thing that happened more or less cemented my path to Spanish citizenship with immediate temporary residency, though not on the basis of on asylum, since a seafaring adventurer was hardly considered a political refugee in the eyes of the law. I owed my luck to the fact that I made a splash in the news. Thanks to the maneuvering of other Cubans in the city, I was interviewed everywhere and had a moment of glory, which I initially shared with the only shipmate who knew of my existence, a friend of my uncle’s who had hidden me and kept me alive during the Atlantic crossing.
Maybe because I was an artist, and especially because I was the only stowaway who had ever turned up from Havana, I was afforded most of the attention, and my legal status was more or less resolved. My accomplice didn’t enjoy the same luck, even though he, too, requested asylum as soon as he set foot in Spain. Maybe that was why the “Marine Biologist”—his chosen moniker after he left the boat—quickly moved on to scam artistry, nighttime debauchery, and a stint in jail. Whatever the case, the media forgot about his story around the same time they published photographs I’d taken in Cuba and of the container in which he’d hidden me during the voyage. I never would have survived the journey without the help of this sailor, who would converse with me and throw me provisions over the container walls, and to whom I would toss my bags of excrement and other waste to dispose of.
After a time, my hopes for success of any kind—an exhibition, film rights, money in my pocket—began to dissolve, and when Carlos agreed to rent me the room, I was busking with a trio that plodded its way through Compay Segundo’s “Chan Chan” some twenty times a night. With my remaining willpower and resources, I took photographs of Barcelona by night, seeking out, as I had back in Cuba, nocturnal tribes, people living loose and free at all costs, liberties enjoyed within four walls, the vulnerable kind of portrait where the photographer becomes his own subject.
Carlos resurrected my reputation in the neighborhood as the “Boat Man,” and soon I was obligated to spice up my daily rounds with my tale, which I would recount to an audience of retirees, former junkies, sedated lunatics from the local day ward, and deadbeats, all of whom had one thing in common: without exception, each had once enjoyed a better life.


My daily rounds never brought me any trouble, though I can’t say the same for my nightly rounds. In the beginning, I was reluctant to follow Carlos down his path, and not because I didn’t mind doing the occasional line now and then but because I still dreamed of exhibiting the photographs I’d taken and creating the kind of art I aspired to. My biggest issue was my busking schedule, which conflicted with my revelry.
But then Carlos' emphysema worsened and he couldn’t make it up the hill to the museum anymore. When I got back to the apartment at night, I’d find him there clucking and suffering from crushing anxiety. So I reorganized my schedule in order to climb the slope myself to pick up his daily hit before I went to play, a gesture he repaid by allowing me to use his Sant Genís Express on my daily rounds.
My new commitment made me a privileged witness to the Mammoth’s growth and Carlos' undoing. Before or after my interaction with that day’s dealer (he had them on rotation), I took to photographing each phase of the Mammoth’s construction until the building acquired its definitive form. From this vantage, I also took snapshots of the city and its port.
At first everything was under control, but it soon took a bad turn. “I have a Cuban dealer who doesn’t do credit,” said Carlos, “so now I have to juggle cash. This crisis is ruthless. If you were drinking gin and tonic before, now it’s beer; and if you were into coke, now it’s crack and heroin.”
One day, my phone roused me from a full-on hangover. It was Carlos, sounding euphoric, calling from the bar by the Mammoth where he had bought his nighttime provisions. Someone had given him a ride there. Or maybe he’d taken the bus, which he hated because the winding road made him sick, and probably also because joining all those broke elderly folks forced him to confront the reality of his circumstances.
“Get up here!” he said.
I went.
I told my band to find a replacement for the night, because I had the feeling I’d have no choice but to stay. At the bar I drank all the whiskeys Carlos gleefully put in front of me as I contemplated the Mammoth from the window, resigned to the beast’s indifference toward me.
That’s when I recognized his voice.
“The Marine Biologist is never late, the Marine Biologist never deals on credit, the Marine Biologist never uses with his customers.”
Carlos' latest dealer—my old accomplice who had brought me to this country, this city, and, definitively, this neighborhood—sat down at our table.
He looked at me and then out the window at the Mammoth, imagining himself as Mohammed:
“If the mountain won't come to me, then I must go to the mountain.”
Then he bummed a sip of my drink.
“Let’s not put a damper on Carlito’s party,” he said. “Go try the product. Your Marine Biologist will hold things down here.”
This meant that upon our return from the bathroom, he’d already ordered a vodka with blueberries and a tapa of jamón that he’d later stiff us on, but not before taking over the table, the conversation, and everything else. When we’d first left the boat, he’d classified himself as a marine biologist, even if his job had only been to identify the fish they dragged on deck. I knew that after his second vodka he’d also remind me of his tetrasexuality—“to cast a wider net,” he said—or he’d start using legal phrases like quid pro quo before bragging about deals that he always pulled off “above board.” And as his delirium waxed, he’d begin to shamelessly grope my thigh and proclaim, “I’m sixty years old, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be your toy.”
“How you betrayed me, Photographer,” he said. “You kept our boat story all for yourself. You and all those other sons of bitches who preferred a white artist for their hero over a mulato sailor. You didn’t come see me once in prison. And don’t start on the cash you sent me. I could have ratted out everyone who tried to buy me off, but I kept my mouth shut. I can see you’re enjoying the product.”
And so went the deluge of reproaches, all true, which upset Carlos so much that he repeatedly escaped to the bathroom to take one bump after the next. Then he’d return, euphoric, to order another round.
“Ay, Photographer, you turned out to be such a rotten chick.”
The Marine Biologist liked to change people’s genders, along with his own. As if he wanted to project an overacted ambiguity that he could combine with an equally overacted solemnity when he met with customers he didn’t know, customers to whom, after selling them their white bait, he would extend his hand like a Hollywood hotshot and proclaim: “Gentlemen, it was a pleasure doing business with you.”
My head started to spin and I was about to leave when Carlos collapsed by the bar on his umpteenth trip to the bathroom.
The Marine Biologist tried to resurrect him with sugar water, to no avail.
“Call an ambulance. I’m getting out of here. I’ll die before I go back to the clink.”
When the emergency services arrived, I gave them an estimate of the number of gin and tonics the man had in his system, omitting the other substances. But Carlos pulled off his oxygen mask and let out a hollow shout.
“I sniffed heroin too!”
Those were his last words. He died right there, in the neighborhood he’d chosen for his slow suicide, having consumed the final drop of his last round.


Carlos' death marked a before-and-after in the history of the neighborhood. Ivan the Russian vanished, the nuns sold their refectory, which became a drug-treatment clinic, and the bars stopped running tabs.
I found myself alone in the apartment with a month to find somewhere else to live; even if I could have made rent by myself—which I couldn’t—I wasn’t officially on the lease and, in Carlos' absence, became a target for eviction.
Carlos left behind a grayish powder in his room and 365 euros, one for each day of the year. I spent the money on a symbolic funeral at the bar where he died, after which I stayed and drank a whiskey in his honor, looking out the window at the Mammoth and bidding it goodbye before it opened.
The bar’s tranquil air was disturbed by the Marine Biologist, who sat down at my table.
“I’ve always known where you lived. We’ve been keeping tabs on you from the beginning.”
He’d stopped referring to me as a woman and had moved from singular to plural, which I found unsettling.
“The Biologist is never late, the Biologist never deals on credit, the Biologist never uses with his customers. But today the Biologist is going to make an exception. Let’s do a bump before I introduce you to a friend who’s dying to meet you.”
He proceeded to order a round (without the tapas this time) and put two lines of coke right on the table, ignoring the bathroom formality. He snorted the first and passed me a rolled-up fifty so I could do mine. Its bitterness sent a shiver through my whole body. I coughed and felt instantly nauseated.
It was through this haze that I first smelled her perfume. Then I saw her. Smiling, pretty, distinctive. She sat with us and greeted the Biologist effusively.
“Photographer. We finally meet. We’re so sorry about your friend. But we’re going to give you better memories of this place. Let’s toast to your new life.”
Again, the plural.
The next day, Irina appeared at my apartment and offered me five thousand euros in cash for the rights to my next show. She said I showed great promise and that my papers would soon come through.
She looked through my homeless series (“a little Mikhailov”), my street protest series (“a little Koudelka”), and my series that portrayed the Mammoth from the port (“a little more like what I’m looking for”).
She adored my photos of Cuba, the bluish tint of the ORWO paper, the anonymous buildings, the Soviet Ladas (“a little like my world”).
I want you to go back there,” she said. “It will be your first trip once you get your papers. And I want the new Cuba to constitute half of your show at the museum. You must go, but you must come back.”
She left me an invitation to the museum opening, an envelope full of cash, and the phone number of a Cuban critic who also lived in the neighborhood and who had forged a career for himself in the city. In fact, I had sometimes seen him at the bar (always the same one—he didn’t make rounds), but hadn’t worked up the nerve to introduce myself.
“Show him your work. We’ve already discussed it and he wants to write about you.”
My papers arrived in due order, I got an entry visa to Cuba, and I went to the museum opening, which involved a presentation by Joan Fontcuberta about the end of photography, the camera as a human appendage, and the contradictions of a profession that had been reduced to a hobby. On the one hand, the whole thing fascinated me, but on the other, it had the effect of a cold shower, since I had no desire to manipulate the truth, or to be a post-photographer, or to theorize about anything at all. I was an old-fashioned person who wanted to resist with my camera on my shoulder and become a paparazzo of the whole disaster.
And that’s exactly what I did on my return to Cuba, capturing Obama’s visit, the Rolling Stones concert, the parties of burgeoning jet-setters. I took photos of generals and of the rock group Porno para Ricardo, of bums and the nouveau riche, of the parties at Bar Roma and the funerals of Fidel Castro, Frank Stella, and Karl Lagerfeld. And I photographed all the collectors that had begun to prowl around the island and whom, in a reversal of roles, the artists pursued like a school of sardines determined to capture a shark.
Finally, I went back to Barcelona. I held up my end of the deal with Irina and she held up hers. We had sex a few times. She made it very clear that business success was, for her, the highest form of orgasm.
The Marine Biologist was a constant presence in this new life of mine, dealing drugs around the neighborhood and the museum, especially since Irina liked to mix her bumps of coke with shots of vodka and little spoonfuls of caviar.
One day, Irina told me she wanted to put together a show using some of the dealer’s ideas. I wondered what those ideas could be. What I heard left me stunned. The Marine Biologist had taken our conversations from the boat and turned them into perorations on relational aesthetics as applied to drug trafficking. He wanted to organize a dealers’ strike, a single day without drugs anywhere in the city, which he believed would expose the anxiety of the businesspeople and politicians. Or an architectonic treatise on the location of bathrooms in all the bars. Or a credit system of art in exchange for cocaine.
“We haven’t been able to do much for him. He’s over sixty years old (like your dead friend). He just had a stroke. He can’t go on in this country like a pariah; he’s practically a ghost. We owe it to him.”
“But would you really compromise your museum with that nonsense?”
“The Mammoth is an anti-museum; your photographs will help you understand.”
That night in bed, Irina showed me various close-ups of photos I’d taken from the Mammoth. They were all of the port, and she’d drawn a red circle on them. “See this empty space? Some other Russians want to build a branch of the Hermitage there. I can’t allow it—and I’m one step ahead of them.”
Then she showed me an app that had been implanted on the phones of Russians disembarking from the cruise ships, another job she’d commissioned from a collective specializing in the critique of big data. The GPS demonstrated that these tourists went only as far as the rich areas by the port, spending their time and money in designer boutiques.
“These people will never know the city. They’ll never come all the way up here. And that’s not right. I love this neighborhood; that’s why I let the people rename my museum.”
That’s when it dawned on me that the Mammoth was, in reality, a museum that had been created to keep watch over another museum, a trench in the war between the Russians who had begun to occupy the city. And I felt afraid, because that kind of adventure never has a happy ending. I pictured myself as a spy with a bullet in my head, or drowned at the bottom of the sea, my camera around my neck, as boatloads of oligarchs motored over my lifeless body.
On the other hand, Irina continued to pay me and I didn’t refuse. I needed the money; I liked the cash and loved that she never made me sign anything.
“We’re both from Soviet worlds,” she would say. “We understand each other.”
My other problem was the Marine Biologist. I couldn’t shake him. He had a key to my apartment, which Irina was paying for. They had a special relationship. And to top it off, she saw him as an artist.
“He could be the king of artistic activism. But not as an advocate for social justice or pseudo-communism. No, sir. He has the potential to illuminate what he’s spent his life embodying: an ordinary dealer prevented from actualizing his talent, his ideas, his discourse.”
What talent? What ideas? What discourse? I didn’t dare ask, lest I reveal that deep down, I was jealous.
I don’t know who said that sooner or later, the whole world would sit down to a banquet of consequences. But I do know that the day arrived when I had to pay my debts, even if it wasn’t exactly as the Russian foretold.
It was worse.
“I have some news for you. The first thing is they’ve invited you to the Havana Biennial. The second is that I’m going to finance the work you’ll present there.”
“Oh, yeah? Will you also be taking the photos for me?”
“No,” she replied. “Because the camera is only a part of this masterpiece.”
Irina produced a bottle of vodka and placed three glasses on her office desk.
The Marine Biologist made a sudden entrance and incorporated himself into our toast and our plans.
“A Russian vessel is scheduled to sail into Havana during the biennial. You will be aboard to document the crossing you made before, only in reverse.”
“Are you nuts?” I asked.
But Irina didn’t even hear me. She was still getting to the best part.
“The Marine Biologist will join you. You’ll take photographs of his voyage. Once you’ve arrived, one of our contacts will print them off the same day. Then the subject himself will appear in the flesh at the opening, completing his dream of returning to the abyss. And this, my friend, will be the true work—a sensation!”
Irina didn’t seem concerned that we’d be arrested as soon as we set foot on the island.
“I’ll take care of everything. I have my contacts. Russia’s reach is still long.”
“Why do I have to make a masterpiece for this guy?” I asked.
The Marine Biologist called me a moron under his breath.
“I don’t know how you can be such a gifted artist and so clueless at the same time,” he said. “This isn’t about me. I created my masterpiece when I brought you here. Now it’s time for you to create yours: take me back. Quid pro quo, Photographer. Quid pro quo.”

 Iván de la Nuez is a curator and writer. He was born in Havana and is based in Barcelona. This story will appear in the book Island in the Light / Isla en la luz (Tra Publishing), a project, forthcoming in June, which features work by sixty-five artists and writers and was funded by the Jorge M. Pérez Family Foundation.


Translated from the Spanish by Hillary Gulley.


Photograph by Greg Kahn, from the series Havana Youth