Though the island of Cuba floats only 90 miles away from Key West, Florida, it feels frozen in time 60 years in the past. As a traveler, it appears trapped in a tussle between traditional and modern, caught in the ebb and flow of economic reality and communist dogma. The country’s infrastructure is strained to the limits as the tourist industry is rapidly expanding. Being a witness to a country in transformation is what drew me to travel to Cuba.
Wandering the majestic squares, cobbled streets and crumbling relics with camera in tow, I grasped that Cuban culture was influenced by a melting pot of cultures, especially those of Spain and Africa. The question when I land: could I capture the humble dignity of the people of Cuba on film?
The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page – Saint Augustine
Here a few ‘pages’ from my photographic journey. And a few reasons you must travel to this fascinating land.
Cuba is ripe with all the raw ingredients: remarkable color palettes, rugged textures, unpredictable patterns, deep shadows – a checklist to make even Rembrandt jealous.
All that was left to add was humanity; a pinch of luck and the recipe was complete.
The warmth and hospitable aura that radiated from the Cuban people was not lost on me. As a photographer, I am often invading the space of strangers as part of the creative process but if you show respect, you get it back in return. People were gracious and patient as I drifted within their lives, if just for an instant.
Navigating each twist and turn of the narrow streets of old Havana revealed an array of Cuban residents, each inexplicably posed as if waiting for my arrival. Here was my chance to share a moment, broken Spanish, a handshake and, of course… a photograph.
For this transaction I brought along small tokens to share. A ball and crayons for children, or practical items like work gloves for a framer that are hard to come by.
I followed the Caribbean coast, traveled to charming Trinidad to explore the best-preserved colonial city of Cuba. In lieu of hotel, and to have a more authentic experience, I stayed in a “casa particular”, which means “private house” in Spanish. (The equivalent to a bed and breakfast.) I began each day on the early side to capture sumptuous shadows as the sun rose. Here I awoke to street vendors, horse drawn carts and children playing in the street.
The challenge when you photograph a face is to strive to capture the soul behind it.
The streets have an abundance of beautiful faces, often juxtaposed against colorful decaying facades. At first glance they give the appearance of a modern Renaissance painting. If you have the endurance to pursue your photographic quest 10 hours a day, something exceptional is bound to pass in front of your lens.
If you want to enter an automotive time warp, then you need to travel to Cuba. About 60,000 vintage American cars from the 1950s are left in this country. What keeps them running and on the road – improvised makeshift parts and sheer Cuban ingenuity. Standing on Havana’s oceanfront boulevard with grandiose mansions on my left and the Caribbean Sea on my right, I watch the equivalent of a car museum barrel down the Malecon Boulevard, connecting Vedado to Old Havana.
There is something surreal when you stand at an intersection and see an assembly of classic American cars stop at light. Blinding chrome, unorthodox colors, growling motors all wrapped in a vintage aesthetic – one can’t help but grin from ear to ear. A photographer is a voyeur by nature so I’m always curious to catch a glimpse of a driver or passenger in these marvelous machines.
Blood, sweat, tears and a list of Olympic Gold medals long enough to make any country beam with pride suggests boxing is undisputed as one of Cuba’s favorite sports.
Walking into Rafael Trejo, the oldest boxing gym in Havana, one can’t help wonder if they’ve stumbled onto a classic movie set in 1976. (Cue the theme from ROCKY). Here you won’t find computer calibrated equipment or lemon infused water coolers. This is a barebones-scarred concrete walls-rusted iron beams-ducked taped punching bag kind of gym, with only a thin corrugated tin roof hanging above the ring but to the boxing community, this is a temple and I’m standing on the equivalent of holy ground.
Idamelys Moreno, one of the first female Olympic team boxers in Cuba, is training for an historic event, and perhaps even a gold medal at the 2020 Olympics.
To watch Idamelys methodically work out, it was clear that losing is not an option. The sense of responsibility and dedication that she shoulders is not only for herself as a female athlete in a male dominated sport but for her country. In this unpretentious, hole in the wall I learned that the passion of the Cuban people is undeniable.
The Spanish art form of Flamenco is a dance distinguished by hand claps, thunderous footwork, and complex maneuvers compiled from Spanish, Moorish, Jewish and African culture.
A heart-stirring event was to photograph dancers at The Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, one of eleven Roman Catholic cathedrals on the island of Cuba, located in the Plaza de la Catedral in the center of old Havana.
Theatrical expressions, arms slicing air, ruffled dresses whipped like a bull fighter’s cape and percussive feet echoing over ancient cobbled stones… mesmerized… all I had to do was remember to lift the camera to my eye.
Music and dance are some of Cuba’s significant exports and have a contagious effect as you walk or better yet strut through the streets of Havana.
Love Glenn’s stunning photography? See more of his travel photography on his website.