I thought I’d give y’all the low-down on the trip. Highlights, details, etc., from each place we traveled to over the last month.
I’ve wanted to shoot Cuba, specifically Havana, for a long time. I wanted to do it while Castro was alive (disputed at this point), and while the U.S. embargo remained in place. I sense a change in the wind for Cuba and I wanted to see it and shoot it before the floodgates opened. It didn’t disappoint. But it did challenge my expectations.
I went in, as I always do, thinking I’ve spoken sternly to my expectations and that they’ll stay out of my way so I can see the place with something like clarity. Of course, it never happens and I spend two days wandering around looking, taking visual inventory, making lists, and generally wondering what the heck I’m doing in this place and where I can get a mojito. Havana was no different. It was a challenge, and it took a few days to encounter the place a little before shooting. As it is I’ve come home feeling like she never quite let down her guard, that what I saw in my brief week, was no more than the face she shows to all new-comers. I don’t sense I got much under the surface. Of course, it was only a week, but I usually feel I’ve seen something more “real” than I did in Havana.
Still, on another level, it’s what I expected. Old cars. Old men. Derelict colonial buildings with character and texture to spare. Lots of tourism. Cigars. Mojitos. Each night when the shooting was done and the images were downloading we sat on the balcony of our penthouse casa particulare, had some rum and a cigar and counted down to the 9pm canon. It was pretty great.
Visas aren’t an issue for Canadians. Get on the plane, fill in the card, clear customs. Piece of cake. In fact I’ve never been so warmly welcomed to a place. We stayed at Casa Evora Rodriguez, right on the junction of Prado and the Malecon, in a 9th floor penthouse. If there’s a better view in Havana, I can’t imagine it. Eva’s english is perfect and she’s a super host. We paid, if I recall correctly, about $40 USD for a room. Evora can be reached at: email@example.com, or called at 537-861-7932. If I returned I would stay here again in a heartbeat. We also hired a guide named Jorge and he was monumentally helpful in orienting us, though the ride he sent to the airport somehow never found us. If you need someone, again with excellent english and the savoir-faire and trust-worthiness needed in these kinds of contacts, you can email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org – Thanks to Kate for recommending him.
Did I mention the mojitos? Also, turns out they have cigars there. We spent almost all our time shooting in Old Havana, a mix of genuine life and well-choreographed tourism areas. As such it was a mixed bag. I loved the plazas once I resigned myself to feeling like I was in Europe. I loved the people, and I loved the weather. Visually, you can’t go wrong with the old cars and textured walls, but shooting something so well photographed by others it’s always a challenge to find my own voice, my own scenes. Shooting at night was a highlight and if/when I go back I will bring a monopod and softbox for the strobe, and go back to some spots and do the night shots right. I’d also get a scooter and get out of town. I regretted not seeing more of rural Cuba. Still, I only had 6 days, so I usually restrict my time – in this case I didn’t see much more than Old Havana and Centro.
I wanted to do a photo essay in the cigar factory, get behind the scenes a little. I’d been planning this. And it was closed up tight for vacations for the days of our visit. My back-up plan was the rum museum, again hoping to get behind the scenes. It was closed due to power problems. I never did find the quintessential cuban gentleman for the portraits I wanted. I found a couple but they were a little too comfortable with the camera, posing like K-mart models. Very odd.
If I Did It Again.
Make actual appointments with the folks at the cigar factory, or better yet get to a plantation and find the less touristy face of this iconic industry. More night photography. I kept hearing about the music and the dancing, never really found it’s real representation, only that put on for the tourists. So I’d dig deeper to find it. And I’d go for longer and get out of the city and into the country. I’d also explore the Santoria cult a little more.
OK, that’s the stuff I needed to get out of the way. If it sounds like I’m disappointed in Havana, then let me be clear – I loved it. The issues were just the normal ones I face in all locations. They just seemd bigger because this trip was for the express purpose of gathering resources for the book, so the pressure was greater and that never helps the creative process! The struggle to get past my expectations, the clever plans that go awry, and the eventual settling in to a groove, seeing the place more clearly and getting a couple dozen shots I’m proud to put into my collection, it’s all par for the course. But always hard work. I’m glad I went, I’d go again.
I’d be happy to answer questions if you’re planning to go to Havana to shoot. Drop me a line or leave a comment. Tomorrow, Cairo.