We booked a one-week foray to Cuba in search of palm trees, turquoise waters, great music and an endless stream of piña coladas. This was to be a family holiday, and I’m sure I am not the only photographer who has discovered they cannot diligently shoot while on vacation. As a compromise between my own impulses as a photographer and my respect for the notion that this would be a family holiday, I decided to take just one small carry-on bag with a single camera body, two lenses and one Singh-Ray Hi-Lux filter.
Over the years I have learned that salt in the air, borne from nearby sea water, is an absolutely lethal mixture when it comes in contact with the coating on camera lenses. The moist salt spray will crystallize as it dries and make removal much like rubbing the front element with sandpaper. In the incredible city of Havana there is also a lot of construction taking place and the vast majority of this is with concrete and masonry, hence there would be a significant amount of dust in the air as well. This was a classic time to protect the front of my lens, and my Singh-Ray Hi-Lux was the perfect choice. In addition to physical protection, I find this UV warming filter adds a subtle warmth to the picture as it minimizes the effects of chromatic aberration.
On our second day in Havana we decided to take a tour to Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of this city full of contrasts and surprises. This was to be the only four hours of the entire week I would have a camera over my shoulder, one lens and no tripod, flashes or accessories. I was going to be a tourist, plain and simple.
I started my photography career about 23 years ago by shooting for a weekly newspaper in exchange for free rolls of film and access to the darkroom. This Havana walk-about reminded me so much of those early days of meandering the streets and harbour front simply looking for visual excitement to document. The image of the family collecting water is an example: We were standing on the sidewalk under the cover of a canopy to escape the noon day sun and enjoy a reprieve from the heat. Immediately across the street was the El Capitolio, while behind me was a series of apartment complexes. Well appointed throughout with fine marble and art, the Capital building was at one time the seat of the Cuban legislature. Behind me and in complete contrast, is an open doorway that leads to what appears to be a common courtyard. A young lady is drawing water from an open well or cistern, while another hauls the bucket to an upper level balcony with a rope. Auto focus and quick reaction ensured the shoot as I literally fired off four frames from hip level before the scene disappeared. I always shoot in RAW, and this allows me to crop an acceptable composition later.
Despite the huge population difference and the extreme contrasts in architecture and culture, the challenge of street photography remained the same as my earlier days. This run-and-gun style seemed quite appropriate for our family holiday as well. I would shoot with a very intuitive and reactionary style; only once did our youngest son have to come back and rescue me. The black and white photo is the result of my lagging behind; I simply had to have a picture of this warm, friendly lady.
As tourists meander through Old Havana they will eventually be drawn to the magnet of Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana. Enterprising locals busking for a few extra pesos also know this draw, and it is a great place to hear some incredible street music. Just around the corner from the Cathedral are several ladies dressed in colourful costume with the biggest and ugliest looking facsimile of a cigar imaginable – you can take their picture for a peso. While the vibrant colours are great and the stogie iconic, I couldn’t help but be drawn to this lady’s eyes as she worked the crowd of cameras surrounding her. I cropped out the hand rolled cigar, the plastic flowers in the hat and the silk yellow scarf to concentrate on that face and the story in the eyes – the eyes told the story and the great spectral lighting provided the life as only could be portrayed in black and white.
The colonial buildings in Old Havana are being painted in warm pastels and accented with bright bold primary colours. This colour scheme abounds in Havana and complements not only the building facades but reflect the warm and inviting people as well.
My first impression of Cuba was one of surprise. How is it possible that a group of people could be so obviously lacking in what we in the west would consider basic amenities, and yet be so incredibly happy and apparently contented?
Speaking as a photographer, I must say Havana is a great place to rejuvenate the soul and recall why most of us got in this business in the first place — because shooting for fun is fun! The next time you go on a family holiday consider threading a Hi-Lux on your favourite ‘street’ lens and go on a walk-about… unplugged and bare-bones. You will love the experience, and so will your family; everyone will came home happy and relaxed.