The island nation of Cuba has long been hidden under the regime of revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, who came into power after overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Castro ruled with an iron fist for 49 years before passing the regime to his brother, Raul Castro, on account of his failing health. Fidel’s death in November of 2016 brought hope that Raul would continue to allow for the development of friendly relations between the US and Cuba. The easing of tension in the relationship welcomed President Obama for a visit. He was the first U.S. president to visit the Communist-ruled island since 1928.
The warming of the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba sparked my interest in visiting. Long hidden behind a curtain from Americans since the Revolution in 1959, I was excited to visit, experience, and photograph first-hand the iconic sights in what many say is a country “lost in time.” Once considered the jewel of the Caribbean, Cuba romanced long-time resident Ernest Hemingway — he wrote “The Old Man and the Sea” at his Cuban estate. My curiosity was piqued. I gathered a group of five female photographer friends and we set out to explore, learn, and photograph Cuba and its people. After a year of meticulous planning and research, we packed our cameras and boarded the plane.
In addition to photographing the iconic sites and cars most visitors are attracted to, I was also interested in looking directly into the eyes of the Cuban people. I wanted to capture their inner spirit with my camera, emphasizing their beautiful faces and enchanting eyes. I wanted to photograph Cuba as no one had before.
I photographed the people I met using my iPhone, which I found less threatening than my large, DSLR camera might have been. As a thank you for their time and gracious attitude, I utilized a small, smartphone printer, and presented people with an immediate print of their portrait as a token of my appreciation. For some, especially those we met in rural towns and villages, this print was the only photograph they had of themselves or their family members.
One man in the western town of Viñales was so appreciative of his print that he invited my friends and I to his house for dinner with him and his daughter that evening. We nearly caused a scene on a street in Cienfuegos when a group of women were ecstatic at having their portrait taken and receiving a print. They immediately gathered and called more friends out into the street to share in the unique, photographic experience.
Photographing Cuban residents taught me that photography can create community. In one town, we saw a group of men who were sitting together on the street. They looked a little more Americanized and were hamming it up for the camera. Though they were nice, they didn’t know English and we didn’t know much Spanish. Then a woman walked by and paused.
She spoke both languages and told us that one of the men was a fisherman, and the group had just gone fishing together. Through her, we learned that they all had gone to school together as boys. I took her photo as thanks, which made her so happy that she then gathered her friends to be photographed as well. We just happened to stop and chat, and the experience spiraled once we started talking to one person. Soon we had a big group out there with us on the street!
Despite the slight language barrier, there were smiles and heartfelt thanks. I felt a true appreciation for photography as I traversed the island, photographing the people I met along the way. As I look through the images I took, I remember the man who was so appreciative of his print he invited us to meet his daughter. I see the family members of our tour guide who happily posed for my camera. I can taste the cuban coffee as I look at the portrait of the woman who ran the town’s most popular coffee stand. This portrait project helped me bridge my mental divide between the United States and Cuba. I came away from the trip feeling as though I not only met and photographed many Cubans, but also gained an insight into the Cuban way of life and experiencing community.