When the Cuban Revolution Was Young

New library photo collection provides a rare look at Cuba in the 60s

Fidel Castro is photographed in a journalist's room in the Habana Libre Hotel, writing to the French ambassador.

It was a time in Cuba when Fidel Castro could be photographed in his austere apartment, laughing and surrounded by friends as he does sit-ups in a make-shift gym. The year was 1964, and journalist Deena Stryker had unusual access to all aspects of Cuban lives, to capture moments from both public events and the personal lives of political leaders and regular people.

More than 40 years later, the photos are part of the Archive of Documentary Arts in the Duke Special Collections Library where a new digital collection provides online access to them.

An American with dual French citizenship, Stryker used contacts through the Agence France-Presse to make connections in Cuba. The collection includes more than 1,800 photos from 1963-64, a time that Stryker said was marked "by energy and optimism."

"I was constantly aware that I was witnessing something very special and that the usual barriers between citizens and the government had been diluted," Stryker said in an interview this week. "The informality you see in the photos was real."

Holly Ackerman, Duke librarian for Latin America and Iberia and a Cuba specialist, said the photos carry a certain spirit that she said is hard to find now. She said she believes the photos will be heavily used by the many scholars and non-scholars interested in learning more about the early years of the Cuban revolution.

"These are not the official photographs," Ackerman said. "You see a young Fidel doing exercises on his porch. There are many photos of Celia Sanchez, one of the few people who could always talk back to Fidel without him retaliating. She was a very important person, someone who acted almost as a national intermediary or ombudsperson. If you needed assistance, you would call her and she would get it done."

Ackerman said the images also present rarely seen sides of the leaders. Sanchez is shown both in olive combat clothes and dressed up in a headband looking bourgeois.

The photos of daily life in Cuba show the same optimism, Stryker said. One of her favorites is a portrait of two young cousins in dresses (below). Their parents were sisters who were well-to-do and living in Mexico at the time Castro came to power. "Their mothers believed in him and returned to Cuba after the revolution to be part of it."

"It was a very hopeful time," Ackerman said. "It's nostalgic to look back on them now."

"It's my hope that these photos will be viewed as witness to a specific period in the Cuban Revolution," Stryker said, "at a time when momentuous changes in our relations with Cuba may be on the horizon."


Cousins sit on a couch in a well-to-do Cuban home in a 1964 photo by Stryker. Below, Cuban families window shop in Bayamo in 1963.