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  • Robin Yong

Havana Queen Story - The Ambassador's Wife


The old house in Havana...this is the place where many A-list celebrities like Madonna, Rihanna and President Obama had their pictures taken. I had a week's access to the place for photos so naturally I invited all my Cuban friends here for photos. On the last day, I invited new found friend, the drag Queen Salma de Armas. The picture is from part of my multi award winning series, 1957.

1957 is a collection of portraits and stories of my friends in Cuba. This one is called Havana Queen Story. Drag Queens, together with many of the LGBT community, haven’t been tolerated well at all until recently. In recent years, they are playing to sell-out crowds again every night. I think Drag Queens are true artistes, and their art is one of resistance, they are a social wonder and certainly some of the world's best performers.

The Cuban government persecuted gays in the 1960s and 1970s but this has since been outlawed discrimination and come to be seen as relatively progressive on the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. The government is now funding gender reassignment surgeries, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is outlawed, and the police receive training designed to avoid disrespectful treatment of the gay and lesbian community.

Havana Queen Story is my first collaboration with Salma. The photo has bagged many prestigious photo awards worldwide, although it has also been given zero marks in some countries for its LGBT themes. The photo just creates so much awe and controversy every time it is shown, breaking as many rules as it can and making the viewer just wanting to have a second and third look at it again and again. The unlikely color combinations of blue and green, purple and orange...its participation inside female portrait categories, exploration of taboo themes etc.

I remember clearly the day of our photo shoot. Someone mentioned to Salma that I am a world famous photographer, so she's probably looking out for a few studio lights, big soft boxes, bossy photo assistants etc, none of which were present. I know I am very different from most photographers. Gear is not something I pay too much attention to. I walked over to Salma while she was putting on the final touches to her makeup and whispered to her - "You look extremely stunning today with your bling-bling blue dress". We did this photo in a bedroom on the 2nd floor of the house, using natural lighting from a side door on the left and what extra little the bedside lamps can give us.

As for the lady on the left, she is the wife of a Cuban Ambassador. She happened to be a guest at the house when we were doing photos and I thought having two people in the photo would make a stronger picture, so I invited her to join us.




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