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Victoria dentist, wife to present Havana gallery

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
May 21, 2014 at 12:21 a.m.

Dr. Buddy Lee and his wife, Jerra Lee, captured images of life in Cuba while visiting the country on three photography trips from 2012-14. Because of the United States' embargo established in the 1960s, new vehicles were not imported into the country, and many of the cars driven in Cuba today are antique model cars. The Lee's photos are being featured during "Images from Havana and Beyond" at the Rockport Center for the Arts beginning Saturday.

IF YOU GO

• WHAT: Images from Havana and Beyond, photography exhibit

• WHEN: Saturday to June 14

• SPECIAL DATES: Gallery talk 4:30-7 p.m. Saturday; special extended slide presentation 1:30 p.m. Sunday

• WHERE: Rockport Center for the Arts, 902 Navigation Circle, Rockport

• COST: All events and exhibits are free and open to the public.

• MORE INFO: For more information, visit rockportartcenter.com or releephoto.com or call 361-729-5519.

The morning after arriving in Cuba, Dr. Buddy Lee awoke before sunrise - before his wife, Jerra, began to stir in the hotel - and walked across the street to search for a cafe.

Sipping brewed coffee - a cafe con leche - Lee asked God in the quiet of early morning to reveal his purpose for the trip.

"When I first heard of this photography travel trip, I thought it was so interesting. It just came to me that at some point, the embargo is going to disappear, and Cuba will become more familiar to all of us," said Lee, a third-generation dentist in Victoria and amateur photographer. "What I wanted to do was capture the way it is now. There's a pull between what Fidel Castro is trying to do and how these people are trying to make a life."

Lee finished his brew and departed the cafe moments before a morning drizzle transformed into a rainstorm.

As the skies let out, he leaped under an awning to protect his camera equipment from the water.

That's when he said God gave him the image - a Y-shaped cobblestone street splashed with rain, reflecting early rays of sun, the backdrop of locals walking and driving in the rain against the disrepair of Santiago de Cuba's downtown streets.

It became one of his favorite photographs of the trip.

"I just thought, 'This is why I'm supposed to be here,'" Lee said. "I probably got five really good images from that one moment."

The Lees have traveled three times to Cuba on photography expeditions since 2012, each time returning to Victoria with thousands of images of the country's unique and antiquated culture.

But when he and Jerra sat down to edit the images, they felt compelled to share them with the community.

"Being in a place like that, you see things so differently, so when you're there, you want to capture the people and their plight," Jerra Lee said.

Hoping to start a dialogue about a transitioning political Cuba and a people the pair had grown to cherish and friends and teachers, the Lees reached out to the Rockport Center for the Arts to arrange an exhibit of the photos from their Cuban travels.

More than 60 photographs - of more than 60,000 - will be on display during the "Images from Havana and Beyond" exhibit, which begins Saturday at the Rockport gallery.

"Who will be there is who is supposed to be there. Everyone who views them, I hope, will learn a little more about Cuba," Lee said. "For me, the photos are gifts that were given to me and Jerra, and they have a lot of emotion attached to them."

The images tell stories of a country affected by communism, where everyone earns the same wage and homes and buildings and ancient churches go without repair for lack of funding.

They also tell the story of the United States' 1960 embargo of exports to Cuba, resulting in a nation driving antique cars as daily drivers and a government suspicious of American tourists.

"One of the men we photographed took (a man on our trip) into his home to show him his pig. . When he learned he was from the U.S., he said, 'Oh, no, the government is going to ask me why he was here,'" Jerra said.

Lee and Jerra said their trips to Cuba have been life-changing, and they will continue to return as often as possible.

They've grown as photographers and gained relationships with the Cuban people they visit in the neighborhoods, schools and art community.

And for Lee, he said the traveling and Cuban culture has inspired his creative mind and unleashed a new passion for photography.

"When you're off in the world like that, you're not thinking about the leak you need to fix in your house or what chores you need to finish. You're thinking about what gifts will be revealed to you," Lee said. "The more you get into the quietness, the more you can see and hear. You're like an open sponge."

Buddy and Jerra's photographs will be for sale, pre-matted, at the gallery.

And they welcome the community to the free exhibit to experience a culture and narrative told in pictures, moments and images.

"There are times I just get choked up thinking about it," Lee said. "I sometimes think I'm shown these moments and allowed to capture them so I can show them to y'all."

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