Cuba remains as photogenic today as ever it was more than four decades ago, when bearded guerrillas first came down from the hills. The unexpected and surreal revolution of 1959 often seemed, to the voyeuristic outsider, to be as much about black-and-white images and iconic poster design as it was about the rights of workers and peasants. Yet over the years, the roving eye of the foreign photographer has become bored with the revolution, seeking inspiration in inanimate objects of an earlier era. It has captured most recently the Spanish colonial ruins of Old Havana and Trinidad, wonderfully recovered, or the many ancient US automobiles, brought back into service in a prolonged age of austerity. Such non-political, even counter-revolutionary, photography stands up well on the coffee table, but one often longs for someone to record what else is on show. Wouldn't it be nice, just occasionally, to be reminded of the unromantic and ever-present colonial legacy of the Soviet era? How about some shots of the myriad modernist blocks in discoloured concrete, reminiscent of eastern Europe, that hide an office or a hospital, a hotel complex or a school?
The striking photographs by Lucy Davies, whose current show at a large gallery in trendy Hoxton, east London, is titled "La Lucha Cubana" (the Cuban struggle), appear at first sight to be a throwback to the old romantic school, with a touch of socialist realism. Concentrating on work and play, a favourite theme of revolutionary photographers, Davies shows a gallery-full of pictures of young sugar-cane cutters from the old Hershey plantation outside Matanzas, and then, in the basement space, there is a splendid spread of girls from the local provincial cabaret in Colon. Here, we are unmistakably in Latin America: a photograph of young men lying sprawled out on the cut cane is eerily similar to the early pictures of the Mexican revolution, while the images of very ordinary girls in gorgeous costumes seem initially to be familiar carnival shots.
Yet something different is going on here. Such pictures might easily have repeated the usual cliches, but Davies is sufficiently experienced to try for a more subtle interpretation. There is nothing heroic or Stakhanovite about the workers, just as there is nothing remotely sleazy about the cabaret girls. The sugar workers are teenage conscripts, doing their two-year national service in the cane fields. The girls are not in the tourist sex industry, but in the state-financed entertainment business, doing song-and-dance routines strictly for the locals.
These attractive young men, striding confidently out to work at first light, are portrayed with forceful individual character. They look strong and powerful and motivated. Above all, they are in rude good health, their muscles rippling and bulging, a living advertisement for the Cuban health service. A display of photographs of the Haitian sugar workers on the plantations of the Dominican Republic would look very different. Yet although these images give a relatively upbeat vision of typical third-world scenes, they are not propaganda pictures. The alert and intelligent faces display a potent sense of pride in their bodies and their skill, but this is clearly mixed with a degree of bolshiness and frustration. The revolution may have provided them with education and work, but these conscripts are plainly pissed off.
One longs for them to get together with the girls in the gallery downstairs. But that, apparently, is not possible. The men live, monklike, in their plantation barracks, with occasional weeks off when they return to their home province. The women commute between their village shows and appearances in the town of Santa Clara. They are a cheerful bunch of provincial girls, with more energy than grace, but they, too, clearly have moments of sulky irritation. Dowdily clothed, they are a far cry from the slinky dressers of Havana.
Old revolutionaries who were once illiterate may marvel at the transformation of the economic system, which has brought peace and security to Cuba's countryside after centuries of violence and civil war, but educated teenagers quickly forget the past and have fresh aspirations, unaddressed by the government. In each photograph of the cane-cutters, they are pictured fingering their machetes, the strange quadrilateral sheet of curved metal that the slaves used on the sugar plantations in the 19th century, and then turned on their oppressors during the independence wars. Some cane-cutting on flat terrain is now done by machinery, but no replacement for the machete has yet been found for working rough and hilly ground.
The same old-fashioned technology is on display in the pictures that Davies has taken of the Hershey sugar mill, where there has been no fresh investment since Milton S Hershey died in 1945. This factory, once at the cutting edge of the sugar industry, is now archaic, an anachronism. The lined faces of its technicians, permanent workers rather than conscripts, suggest that they are well aware they are working in a museum. There is nothing so revealing as a good black-and-white photograph, and nothing so conservative as a revolution.
"La Lucha Cubana: working life in Cuba" by Lucy Davies is at the AOP Gallery, 81 Leonard Street, London EC2 (020 7739 3631), until 13 April. An accompanying book, The Sugar Factory, is priced £12.50
Richard Gott is writing a history of Cuba