I have the good fortune of traveling to Cuba on a regular basis. It’s an amazing place, especially for a street photographer intent on capturing authentic moments in a place rich in street life and culture. I have produced seven workshops their with my partner Juan Carlos Ocana and each one has been a glorious success building on the one before. Our Havana workshops have allowed us to share with participants why we love coming to this place time and again.
So it was distressing to hear the Trump administration via the State Department issued a travel warning for Americans considering travel to Cuba. The news story was strange and disturbing; sonic attacks targeting US Diplomats in Cuba producing “significant injuries as a consequence of these attacks” according to the State Department. (Most have recovered according to news reports).
As a result, the State Department put out a statement. “Because our personnel’s safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba.”
Safety is always the number one concern when it comes to our workshops and for my own photographic travel in general. I have learned from experience that rather than depend on outside sources for information when it comes to safety, it’s best to get information from someone you trust, on the ground in the place you are visiting. That’s what we did. Juan Carlos has family in Havana (he now lives in Washington, DC) and his brother Enrique is an experienced travel expert in Cuba.
We decided that, though the “attacks” are still not fully understood, there was no extraordinary danger for us in our travel with our itinerary.
But it was obvious that the warnings to American had taken their toll on travel to Cuba. I spoke to other photo workshop providers and everyone said their numbers were down. We had cancellations to our trip and though our numbers were down too, we proceeded with the workshop.
For the first time on my travels to Havana, I was on my guard. But in the end, I have nothing negative to report. The trip was amazing. Havana did seem quieter to us but maybe not unusually so for early December. The weather was great, as were the people– who I continue to find very welcoming to not only tourists but to photographers specifically. I like the intimacy communicated with a wider focal length lens being physically close to my subjects; so I love shooting here because I find it easier to approach people.
In a poor country like Cuba, you might expect people to ask for money in return for letting a photographer capture them. The “Cigar Ladies” and street performers who make their living from contributions from photographers and tourists rightfully ask. Though I have seen an uptick in people asking for money, (and what shouldn’t they?) most of the locals I encounter do not ask for anything in return, making capturing the authentic travel moments I strive for, that much easier.
Havana is also a place where “color” is hard to ignore. Of course the Golden Hour light will amplify the content and subdue any distracting colors in it’s warm glow. But even in hours when the sun beats down harshly, the density of Old Havana means that soft, reflected light is always available, letting you shoot during the usually unphotogenic noon-day sun—and still come away with beautiful images. And don’t get me started on the magic of Havana at night. The city comes alive, people at their stoops, talking and laughing as they trade the indoor heat for the sometimes night breeze. There’s a real sense of community and it’s a relatively safe place for a photographer to wander, and wander I do.
Sadly, we decided to cancel our workshops in January and February because there was not enough interest. But our March workshop is a go and we already have six people put down their deposits.
I hope between now and then we get to the bottom of exactly what happened to Americans in Havana so that this amazing Island will continue to welcome tourists from around the world and specifically the United States. We are geographically so close and the more we engage with local populations, the less the propaganda on both sides will color perceptions. Politics aside, in this beautiful country economically dependent on tourism, the lack of American tourists is definitely taking a negative toll on the economy for the local population. And it’s a shame that more people won’t be experiencing what this Island Country has to offer.
Oh, and peace and love and your best year yet in 2018!
(All Photographs Taken with Nikon D850)