Rule Breakers: Bjoern Obst

“I never want to see another picture of ________.” Industry veterans share their pet peeves on themes in contemporary photography. In this series they present their “rule” along with five photographs that break the rule in an effort to show that great work is the exception to the rule.

Rule Setter: Peppa Martin, Founder/Director, Truth and Beauty
Rule Breaker: Bjoern Obst

I never want to see another picture of cars in Cuba. Whether lions in the Serengeti or fanciful birds on exotic islands, I’m often informed of places by the ceaseless broadcasting of images, from Cuba in this instance, that are force-fed online to an already bloated audience.

While appealing to many, shots (good and mediocre) of old cars in Cuba are variously hemorrhaged and consequently have become repetitive. Too many photos simply fail to evoke symbolism or feeling, and so the cars become merely static objects.

The monotony is mind-numbing. One gets the sense that Cuba exists for the pleasure of foreigners to poke cameras into the nooks and crannies of the beleaguered society, to visually raze the terrain with memory cards.

But then. On an otherwise mundane day, a guy brings in his new book of photographs from—you guessed it—Cuba. Self-published he admits, but would I mind having a look?

Oh dear lord, rescue me now. Sure, I say, leave it with me. It sits on the furthest edge of my desk for a while, until I muster the enthusiasm to pick it up. I procrastinate. Get coffee, check mail.

The cover is intriguing, so there’s that. Page one, I’m curious. Page two, I’m interested. Page three, I’m rapt.

Simple in execution, consistent in focal length and composition, the photographs are utterly captivating. One by one, Obst captures poignant tableaus of passengers riding in vintage taxis. Photographed in the inky, muggy Cuban evening as the cars slowly pass him by, the people are unguarded, or lost in thought, or tired, or urgent. The viewer, as voyeur, wades into these intensely private moments, and is snared. Here, the ubiquitous colored sedan, bordering on extinction and the subject of too many photos, plays a glorious and praise-worthy supporting role. They convey the same heroic fatigue as the people we see sitting in them, both living a tenuous salvation.

Upon closing the book, I felt I’d had the unmitigated privilege to see the eloquent series, these people, this place. To see a culture stripped of cliché, beyond its perpetual façade, was profoundly affecting.

—Peppa Martin