For the avid traveler and photographer, photographing Cuba and its people is the definitions of an embarrassment of riches. It’s visually compelling and the source of 24/7 inspiration far beyond the brightly colored buildings, decaying facades, and a seemingly inexhaustible fleet of vintage automobiles.
Cuba’s challenging history and complicated present should not be ignored, and in my photos, I didn’t focus only on the fun and beautiful but paid homage to the reality of Havana and a couple of nearby towns.
Despite their despair and hardships, the Cuban people are remarkably resilient and vehemently proud of their culture, as well as a warm and inviting community. In my short stay, they welcomed me with genuine interest, broad smiles, and a visceral desire to connect.
I went to Cuba with the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops‘ on its Seeing Cuba: Discovering the Culture and People of Cuba program, led by photographer Jennifer Spelman. It was cloudy or rained virtually the entire trip. But I still had a great time. enjoyment. Would I have preferred the sun? Sure. But you work with what you got, right?
Our home base was the 447 room Parqué Central Hotel, centrally located. From there, we could walk to the major sites such as the colorful buildings on Paseo de Marti, the restaurant El Floridita (a Hemmingway favorite), as well as the Museo Nacional de las Bellas Artes. For locations requiring a vehicle, the workshop arranged for a small bus.
Three local Cuban photographers, Jorge, Eduardo, and Pepe, translated for us and were Jennifer’s assistants. Some dinners and lunches were part of the program while others we were are on our own.
Dawn Patrol in Havana
Each day began with “Dawn Patrol”. We met in the lobby raring to go—albeit bleary-eyed—and roamed the streets together. If we wanted to, we could separate before meeting back at the hotel for breakfast and the first group outing.
Havana, like most bustling cities, is utterly different in the early morning, all the colorful, time-worn streets were nearly empty and silent. It was a perfect opportunity to watch the city come alive.
In Central Havana, the area between Old Havana and Vedado where the wealthier set live, I ran into a bread man pushing a large red cart, calling to the residents tucked in their beds “Pan para la venta!” “Bread for Sale.” Occasionally, a door would open and a sleepy resident would shuffle over to buy a bag pre-packed with three circular loaves.
Slowly, the school children would appear, the cars on the street passed more frequently, and the curbside fruit stands would open. Havana was awake.
The National Ballet of Cuba
Eons ago I wanted to be a dancer. I found ballet late at 15 after studying modern dance and jazz but excelled quickly.
At the Boston School of Ballet, a couple of years later a series of nasty shin splints and a pair of mobile patellas (bad knees) ended any hopes I had of being a professional. I was devastated.
When we walked into the National Ballet of Cuba, I watched the dancers prepare and remembered how it felt to wrap the ribbons of my toe shoes, one, two, three times around my ankle and then tie it off, making sure to tuck the ends into the wrap so nothing was hanging.
I remembered the rush I’d feel when class began and the pianist began to play. I relived the joy of dancing, feeling the music, crushing the choreography. There was nothing better. Nothing.
We were there to photograph the dancers, which was no easy feat. The eight of us had to dodge each other in dim lighting with fast-moving subjects and a wall full of mirrors. I had to figure out how to tackle the space without affecting the dancers or ruining my images.
Then I saw her. Standing at the barre in the corner, glowing from the light streaming in through a nearby window, stood Mercy Piedra.
Havana’s Farmer’s Market
Whenever I’m in a new country, I always ask whether there is a public market. Besides being wonderfully photogenic, markets are a sure-fire way to get a sense of the local culture from the people who visit, the clothes they wear, and the products sold.
As it so happens, perusing the farmer’s market on Calle 19 in Old Havana was on our group itinerary, but I loved it so much I went back another time to walk around by myself at a slower pace.
Scenes from Havana’s Streets
Wandering through the streets wasn’t relegated to the Dawn Patrol, on the contrary, we often roamed as a group or alone on the way to scheduled activities throughout the city. There’s no better way to find the out-of-the-way places and interesting people than traipsing through the nooks and crannies of a destination.
Paolo and Sophia
I was sightseeing on my own, walking at my leisure through the streets of Havana letting a mental coin toss direct my exploration. When I came across Paolo and Sophia, a kind, elderly couple enjoying their day in the anteroom of their home facing the street. Paolo was playing a banged up out of tune guitar for his wife who listened in her rocking chair as he strummed its fragile strings. I asked if I could take their photo and immediately they invited me to sit down. For the next hour, Paolo and Sophia gave me the wonderful gift of a serenade. (click the link to see their story)