For the avid traveler and photographer, Havana is a wonderland, a source of 24/7 inspiration that goes beyond the brightly colored, decaying facades and a seemingly inexhaustible fleet of vintage automobiles. There is a rich history and warm, inviting locales who welcome travelers with genuine interest, broad smiles and a palpable desire to connect.
For a week I explored the streets, the homes and Cuba’s vastly diverse culture with my fellow photography lovers who, like me, joined the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops’ Seeing Cuba: Discovering the Culture and People of Cuba program, led by pro photographer, Jennifer Spelman. (Full disclosure: I was an invited guest but the writing and sentiment are completely my own)
A week wasn’t nearly enough time. It was a whetting of an appetite I didn’t even know I had. I understood at the end of our journey why more than a few people in my group returned after having visited last year.
Our workshop included outings to nearby towns such as Bejucal, where we took portraits in the rain, and hung out with fisherman at a marina in Cojimar. We photographed dancers from the Cuban National Ballet take class and met lovely people along the way: An old couple that serenaded me and a wonderful old woman named Maria Therésa who invited us into her home. Of course we perused the markets, learned what to do and not to do, ate local specialties, enjoyed more than a few mojitos, but nothing tickled my fancy more than wandering the streets of Havana.
Our days began with an optional predawn walk, aptly named Dawn Patrol. Jennifer was joined by Jorgé Gavilondo, a very talented Cuban photographer who, before retiring, was the country’s leading cancer researcher. (How wild is that?) We’d meet in the lobby raring to go—albeit bleary-eyed—and roam together with the freedom to break off when the desire struck us before meeting back at the hotel for breakfast and the first group outing.
In the dark the narrow streets seemed maze-like but the city turned out to be an easily navigable grid. We were in a prime location at the Parqué Central Hotel which provided easy access to both Old and Central Havana. Popular destinations like the Malecón (an esplanade and seawall that’s a favorite for local fisherman and provides a great view of the 16th century fort Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro across the channel), Plaza Viela, Plaza de San Francisco de Asis and Plaza des Armas, were all within easy walking distance.
As a whole our group was rather large, so we’d break into small teams to roam the city. Twins, Eduardo and Orlando Garcia and Jorgé’s son, Pepé Gavilondo, all great photographers in their own right, would lead along with Jorgé and Jennifer and take us to their favorite streets, haunts and hot spots, depending on what we wanted to see.
Once we got our bearings we had time to explore Havana on our own. I found both scenarios were valuable. While photographing in a pack (no matter how small) can be frustrating, it can also open your eyes to how other people perceive the same thing, inspiring new ways to approach a subject. Besides, it’s always fun to share a discovery with new friends.
Wandering on my own
I also loved wandering on my own, and because, overall, Havana is very safe (which is counter intuitive in today’s world but the truth nonetheless ) I felt comfortable exploring day and night, following no particular route. I let instinct and a mental toss of the coin dictate my path.
As I meandered along, Cubans of all ages, shapes and sizes would ask “De qué país eres,” What country are you from?
“Estados Unidos” (Two of the six words I know in Spanish)
“Si” (number three)
“State? What State you from?”
“New York, I live in New York City.”
“Man HATTEN! My son lives in the Bronx. Do you know the Bronx? Have you seen the Brooklyn Bridge?”
And that’s how relationships began, bonding over popular New York landmarks or the list of family and friends who had moved to the States. More often than not the conversation would lead to a street corner portrait. The Cubans were incredibly friendly, “Happy Souls” as one friend put it, wonderfully curious and eager to express their enthusiasm for America.
The people I met on the side streets spoke broken English at best but that it was far better than my nonexistent Spanish. Charades became an essential part of my repertoire. Locals who worked in tourist areas such as the plazas, hotels, popular restaurants and the like, spoke English more fluently.
Havana: An architectural rainbow
Visually, the city is rich with color and texture beyond anything I’ve experienced before. Remnants of stately mansions with elaborate moldings, marble fixtures, stained glass, soaring ceilings and sweeping staircases, spoke of an opulent history and cultural decadence that with the lack of resources has deteriorated over the last 50 years, but miraculously is still home to a vibrant community whose resourcefulness is exemplary. Much of Havana is living, breathing ruin porn.
In fact there was so much to see I was overwhelmed with choices and had to force myself to slow down. Even after seven days I felt the pressure to capture as much as possible even though my gut told me to take my time. Part of the rush was the ever-present cloud of change washing over the country and my limited time to enjoy it.
A little Cuban history
Under Raul Castro’s leadership, citizens are now allowed to start private businesses, own and sell their own homes, and benefit from aspects of capitalism that were non-existent before. Coupled with the effects of the relaxed travel requirements between the U.S. and Cuba (hotel rooms are booked through 2017), a new Cuba is taking shape. Most of the locals I spoke to seemed excited about the possibilities for prosperity in the wake of all the changes, but they’re equally apprehensive as to effects progress will have on the core values and the traditions that are responsible for the deep sense of community and love of country that is at the foundation of Cuban culture.
Selfishly, I wish I could put the country back into its time capsule until I had the time to return and fully drink in the Cuba that is now before evolution takes hold. I remember wondering as I watched hordes from a cruise ship walk down O’Reilly Street, how much time it would take to change Cuba irrevocably.
I fear it will not be long.
A tad cliché, the old woman with a cigar in Cuba, but I couldn’t resist. – Central Havana
At sunrise, a man sells pineapples to the residents in Central Havana. You’ll find a lot of mobile street vendors selling everything from bread to mops. They roam the streets, calling to the people in their homes, inviting them to come out and buy their wares.
Jorgé Gavilondo, a true renaissance man. A famous Cuban cancer research scientist, awesome photographer and funny as hell. –Central Havana
During Snowmagedden in the Northeast of the United States, high winds caused huge waves to splash over the seawall at the Malecón. The lighthouse next to the 16th century fort, Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro, took a real beating on the other side of the channel. –Malécon
At the end of Obispo Street where it intersects with the The National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana in Old Havana. It’s famous for its daiquiris (they’re a bit pricey) and the fact that it was one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite haunts. (Taken through a bus window)
Some of my fellow travelers and photographers during a break exploring Central Havana: (left>right) Jennifer Spelman, Carrie McCarthy, Donna Marchese Kross, Donna Aceto, Dianne DeLorenzo.
I love moments like this. You turn a corner and there are people dancing rumba! – Central Havana
This lovely woman was opening the door when I happened to be walking by. I raised my camera and looked at her: the universal sign for “Can I take your picture?” She put that sweet grin on her face and posed. Loved her. –Central Havana
A corner reflected in Old Havana.
The peace sign: A classic Cuban response to a request for a photograph. – Old Havana
The owner of this fruit and vegetable stand was very kind and let me in his stand shoot for at least 10 minutes. Afterward he gave me one of the best bananas I’ve ever tasted. – Central Havana
Cuba has free, high-quality education and healthcare, but it also has a housing crisis. Though the roof has fallen in some places, there were still families living in this building in Central Havana.
Another wonderful, interesting face attached to a delightful man who didn’t mind my camera in his face. – Central Havana
Just after sunrise, this man pushes his bread cart through Central Havana yelling “Fresh bread here..” Residents would come out and buy what they needed.
A view of Central Havana and the ocean from the roof of the Parqué Central Hotel. Mansions once single-family homes were subdivided years ago to house as many as 40 families at a time.
I saw this man and thought, Man, what a dashing fellow! –on Paseo de Marti
One of many vendors that wheeled their vegetables or other products through the streets selling their goods to the people. – Central Havana
During a brief break, after laying down pipe in the road, these workers offered their help with a quick photograph. – Old Havana
Young girls practice dance routines on the sidewalk. – Old Havana
In Cuba, men love to pass the time playing dominoes. – Central Havana
A family portrait: Grandpa, Grandma and an adorable munchkin with a new-found balloon. – Old Havana
Just couldn’t resist this. – Central Havana
What was once an incredibly ornate building (it kind of reminds me of the Ansonia in NYC) slowly falls to disrepair and yet is home dozens upon dozens of families. – Old Havana
This young man struck up a conversation with me as I walked towards Plaza Armas. He was going to University to study languages –he already spoke three – and wanted to learn two more so that he could get a job as a high-end tour guide. – Old Havana
The heavily polished wing-tipped shoes of a man playing the trumpet near Plaza des Armes – a more touristy destination. – Old Havana
Cuba is known for its artists. This one finishes one work while displaying his others for passersby near Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. – Old Havana
A wall I sat in front for over an hour capturing a variety of panning and blurred images for my apartment. – Old Havana
One of several antique cameras being sold in the market in Plaza des Armas. While there are many tourists about, you’ll also find some great old watches, cameras, military insignia and photos here. – Old Havana
An “Hola” from above in Old Havana.
I saw this man as I was walking down Amagura Street. His posture, meek and reserved, caught my eye first and then I saw those wonderful light eyes. He was a very sweet man.– Old Havana
~Taken while an invited guest of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops’: Seeing Cuba: Discovering the Culture and People of Cuba: Words and sentiment are my own.