It’s not every day a travel photographer has the chance to showcase and exhibit their work in the communities where their photos were taken. But Cindy Horowitz Wilson, a professional photographer and photography instructor based in North Kingstown, was recently given this rare opportunity and says it was one of the most amazing experiences of her career.

It all started when she and Eileen McCarney Muldoon of Jamestown, her partner in leading travel photography workshops through their company Profundo Journeys, took their fourth trip to Gibara, a small fishing town on the northeast coast of Cuba, in 2016.

During that trip, they were introduced to Festival Internacional de Cine de Gibara, or the International Film Festival of Gibara, a weeklong event centered around the arts, particularly film, that features film screenings, concerts and other activities. They connected with a woman who is affiliated with culture and the arts in Gibara to find out if they could potentially include a photography exhibition at the festival.

Fast forward a year later to 2017, and the two women met with the festival’s president in Havana to discuss the details in more depth.

“He was very interested in our proposal to exhibit images that reflected our years of travel in Cuba,” Wilson said. “Our photos highlighted the richness of Cuban culture and the dignity we saw and experienced in Cuban culture. They don’t have a lot of materials, but they have a very rich existence in that they will share their last button with you if you needed it. Cubans are very open and welcoming to Americans.”

Finally, in July of this year, Wilson and Muldoon were able to show 58 images of Cuban life during the 14th annual Festival Internacional de Cine de Gibara as part of an exhibit titled “Cuba Seen Through an American Lens.”

Getting the photos to Gibara required significant effort. The photographers could not frame or matte anything because of weight limits on airplanes, so, instead, they brought lightweight poster hangers and the printed images in their suitcases. Each wall of the working cigar factory where the photos were exhibited during the festival was brightly painted and had the weathered patina of having been a working factory for 30-plus years.

“It was really interesting to put up photographs of what we conceived to be authentic Cuban life and hanging them, not in a museum or gallery but, in a cigar factory,” Wilson said, describing the response from locals as “amazing.”

“They loved it,” she added. “There was a language barrier, but their gestures were such that they thought the images were really beautiful. We could tell that they felt very proud of what we had photographed and shown from their culture.”

The photos were up on display all week long at the cigar factory, and although photographs are normally not allowed inside cigar factories because of concerns over trade secrets being revealed, an exception was made for the exhibition. Wilson said she was able to photograph workers making cigars juxtaposed with the photos on the walls to offer a glimpse of the exhibit.

“The whole time the exhibition was up, they were still working, rolling, punching,” Wilson said. “It was really cool to be a part of their factory life for a week.”

One of the most rewarding parts of exhibiting photos in the community where they were taken, Wilson said, is having some of the subjects see the photos in the gallery. In one instance, a man named Ronaldo, along with his son and grandson, came to the exhibition’s opening. Ronaldo saw a picture of himself, and Wilson said he couldn’t stop smiling. Another man named Donato, who is a craftsman in Gibara and had been working on rebuilding a theater in town by hand with very few resources since 2013, walked into the cigar factory to see a photo of himself on the wall.

“Their smiles were unforgettable,” Wilson said. “It did our hearts good to see their reactions.”

After going to the same small fishing town four years in a row, Wilson and Muldoon began developing relationships with the townspeople. Each year, Wilson would bring photos from the previous year to give out as gifts.

“The idea that they open their lives to me made me want to give something back to them,” she said. “It’s such a gift to be invited into someone’s home and to have someone share their life with you. It creates a relationship and is so beautiful.”

Although she would love to do the exhibition again, Wilson said the body of work she and Muldoon presented in July was the culmination of six years of photos, and she does not think they could create such a strong body of work on a yearly basis.

All the photos from the exhibition are still in Cuba with the hope that they might be displayed in a few other art-centered festivals.

“Bringing everything home isn’t important at this point,” Wilson said. “Eventually, we’ll go down and bring it back, but it’s been such a rewarding experience. Taking all the photos, seeing them up on the walls in that cigar factory and being able to share them with the community was the true reward.”

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