I don’t know you, and I won’t ever get to know you, but you have piqued my absolute interest. I can only imagine your climate, even though I can visit the “Official Travel Website for Jacksonville FL.” My sweat is dripping as I write, and my imagination clings to rituals and radiates at the tip of my fingers. I can barely fathom what it’s like to have Jenny, my photographer friend, with you. She is the reason you’ve become a city that matters to me.
I zoomed in on your seemingly perfect details, and it’s inevitable not to think of you as a documentary about distance hastily edited based on excuses like graffiti or a lush tree.
Never have distances been so imprecise or blurred.
Never has the word “distance” felt so common and tangible. The subject crossed by digital communication channels doesn’t need makeup; it’s a cut-and-paste subject, presenting a puzzle that invites you to write a letter. Dear city I don’t know, I suspect Jenny has been able to map you out for me.
It was easy to ask Google, “Is it a good idea to live in Jacksonville?” “[…] is a great place to live if you’re looking for a reasonable cost of living, plenty of beach access, a Southern feel, and a new home in the Sunshine State.”
This answer reassures me, but it’s so simplistic that it bores me. Therefore, I wonder, what is Jacksonville and its doppelgänger like? What is it about your density and opacity in the perfect postcards of a strange woman settled in a new home in the Sunshine State? What can I say about your serenity, your tranquility, your bicycles? What can I say about you in such a heated manner when you appear so fresh and habitable?
I accessed the Google Drive that Jenny sent me, titled “Jacksonville Photos.”
Any place is better than here, one could say in your favor, this “here” called Havana. In homes and shop windows, all exterior, all day, nothing interests me more than distance, density, or opacity. In Cuba, Jenny rode a bicycle and mainly photographed models, families, and private business items in her studio to cover rent. She also did still photography for famous music videos. I liked her independent audiovisual work a lot, especially the one shot in an abandoned sugar mill. It seems to capture the sadness of a generation that doesn’t understand why “here” refers to rusty and ugly machinery.
In Cuba, Jenny lived with her girlfriend and their two cats.
In Cuba, Jenny experienced reality with two tiny green eyes, giving it a face and a hypnotic circular light. It’s not audacious to say that this melancholy of yours already existed in those studio photographs, the same one displayed by a century-old oak house, the one removed from time, the theatrical one, the one that embodies a Southern feel.
Weary of everything, dear Jacksonville, she went to you. You welcomed her to suffer great pain while sitting in her cousin’s backyard exactly one month after arriving on your lush green grass. That grass captivated me through WhatsApp, making me wish that I could rest my head there, where water shouldn’t be a problem, and the irrigation system is suitable for an aesthetic reel.
It’s true that I couldn’t console her as you do, Jacksonville, you who are all novelty, all surprise, all reinvention. The anxiety-calming pills, the scents, the advertisements, even the time in you, Jacksonville, should be a time meticulously recorded by a not-so-famous but very precise painter.
Jenny’s photos candidly observe strange times, the ones we don’t control, the ones that stick with us when we see a city from another part of the world for the first time, and luckily, we have a camera in our backpack. Just as we pack everything essential to escape from here. Just as we drag a cat to a better life, which will end up getting sick from all the abundance. Just as we know we are scattered objects, we also know we won’t create a masterpiece but rather a cathartic, youthful, romantic, and evasive work. We walk with a Canon RP to alleviate a sense of totality, ownership, or authority.
She never takes her eyes off you, Jacksonville. It’s a gaze that reinterprets itself in you, slowly abandoning itself in detours and digressions. (Re)touched art is the only art behind the vignettes she shares with me. She dominates it to remove imperfections from the skin and now insists on appreciating the magic of the non-extraordinary, the simple and the plain.
Jacksonville, “I’m getting the hang of you.”
Jacksonville, “I’m spying on you.”
Jacksonville, “I’m walking with you.”
It’s known that José Martí took a train journey between Baldwin and Jacksonville, accompanied by the Dominican Fernando Figueredo Antúnez. It appears that on December 23, 1893, he was photographed and sketched. Of course, I searched for that drawing, for some evidence of that extraordinary moment, but most important things don’t show up in an internet search, and especially not in a sweaty and unwashed imagination.
Jenny can’t write you an anthem like the poet James Weldon Johnson. She can only approach you as a foreigner, that liminal and anonymous stage, that exploration that, as it becomes familiar with an environment, its empty chairs, its flags, its vegetation, begins to fade because time has forever twisted, thickened, and obscured it. Keep in mind that you are the first place outside of Cuba that she has seen, and this fading is a way of surrendering to your beauty.
Isn’t it beautiful to be so unique in the curiosity of a not-so-famous but very meticulous photographer?
* Photos by Jenny Sanchez. Text by Martha Luisa Hernandez Cadenas.
** Translation from Spanish by Fiona Baler.