We last checked in with photographer and videographer James Bernal when he traveled to the Caribbean coast of Colombia. He recently returned to the Caribbean, this time to Cuba. He turned his camera on the beating heart of the island – the Cuban people. He started in Havana and traveled to Trinidad, Cienfuegos, the Bay of Pigs and then went west to Pinar del Rio. He came home with a carefully crafted video that goes beyond stereotypical stock images, introducing his audience to a host of characters and moments. The film manages to be nostalgic while showing viewers an intimate side of a nation many of us have never seen. His collection of scenes from across the country come together into a moving portrait of a nation in the midst of transformation. He spoke with us about what surprised him about Cuba, how he supported his students’ artistic growth, and how he knows when to put down his camera.
ON WHAT MOTIVATES HIM
What inspires you about shooting video?
I’m primarily a photographer but I started shooting video for fun and working with video around 5 years ago. I tend to gravitate towards beautiful light and interesting compositions. Throw some captivating scenery into the mix and a chance to meet new people, and that is what motivates me to pick up my camera.
How do you know when you’ve managed to capture something true with your camera?
I don’t know, to be honest. I might realize after the fact that I caught something good. I’m trying to capture it, but also trying to be apart of it. I’ll shoot a couple of pictures and then put my camera down to engage. I tell myself to stop and experience this thing that I’m apart of. I make it a point to get some good shots in, but then I want to experience where I am. If I’m with friends it’s one thing, but if I am with strangers, I don’t know their comfort level with the camera. In a way, shooting something I am actually experiencing makes it true.
When on location and shooting, do you have a specific narrative in mind you want to capture or do you just go with the flow and shoot as much as possible?
Not really, I usually just let my eye guide me. I respond to those scenes and moments that move me. I shoot much like I travel, and if it feels right, I’ll go for it. Oftentimes, there’s a tendency to point our cameras at the biggest, most impressive sights, but we forget about all the little things that help capture the essence of a place.
ON HIS TRAVEL PHILOSOPHIES
What is your favorite part about traveling and experiencing new cultures?
What I love is being able to wake up in an unfamiliar place, eventually sharing unique experiences with local people, and discovering similarities we all have. Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” It’s a nice reminder that despite being separated by geography, language, or politics, there are still friends to be found wherever you go. Getting out of my comfort zone and allowing myself to be surprised by new places and new people helps me come home and see my own life through new eyes.
What do you do you find to be the most effective way to acclimate to a different culture or location?
Hit the street! When I arrive in a new place, I’ll just drop my backpack off, grab my camera, and head out for a stroll. I’ll wander the streets to get a sense of the place and start making a mental map of spots I want to come back to. Just cruising the streets also inevitably makes for more opportunities to meet locals, which is directly proportional to the amount of life-changing experiences or conversations you’ll take part in. On this trip, I was walking with a kid who was wearing a Boston Red Sox hat. As we were walking down the street, an older man pointed at him and started shouting out player’s names. Now, I don’t know anything about baseball but I was translating between them as they talked about player stats and different games. For the student, that was really exciting.
ON EXPERIENCING CUBA
What was your main reason for going to Cuba? What makes this location interesting or special?
I found myself in Cuba teaching a National Geographic photography workshop to a group of high school students, and after the workshop, took some time to travel with two friends. It was my first time on the island, but I felt as though I had visited before, in another lifetime. When I shot this video, it was shortly after the Obama administration announced the warming of relations between the US and Cuba. There was a lot of excitement in the air and when people learned I was American, their eyes would light up and they’d have lots of questions for me. I grew up in Miami, which is home to a large Cuban community. The community there is largely conservative and right-leaning. I grew up thinking about how Fidel is the antichrist. I studied Latin American History in college, but I was still largely ambivalent about the situation on the ground. Once I arrived, I found some things very familiar, but some of my preconceived notions were really turned on their head. The Cubans I met were very excited to meet Americans – at first they would think we were Canadian! I mean, politics is one thing, but they listen to Drake. They watch the same movies, they know our culture and they enjoy it. Have you heard of the Paquete? (ed note: El Paquete is a hard drive of content – movies, music, tv shows-that is passed around, shared and sold in Cuba.) It’s an ingenious piece of Cuban creativity. It’s a piece of physical internet that gets passed around! So, people are trying hard to access our culture- and they do.
What about this destination inspired you to make this video?
As a Miamian, we’re as much US citizens as we are Latin American citizens, and our histories and identities are intertwined with those of the Caribbean and Latin America. Cuban culture has had such an impact on Miami life that it permeates much of our world. I wanted to go to the source, capture some of my experiences on the island, and provide a little insight into what life in Cuba is like. Cubans are so friendly, and even though I know many of them are in a difficult situation, most of them wouldn’t let it on. So when you did get to see that, it was really affecting. I’ve been twice and when I go, I bring magazines, school supplies, instruments.
During the trip, did you have an inspirational moment you captured in this film?
(Timestamp 1:16) While walking through Old Havana, we heard the unmistakable sound of Beyoncé being played at ridiculously high volumes. It was coming from somewhere down the street. Like moths to a flame, we followed the music to the next block where we realized it was emanating from an upstairs window. We let ourselves up to the floor, knocked on a door, and waited. The music stopped, a girl answered the door, and when we asked her where the party was. Without missing a beat, she said “it’s right here, it’s my 30th birthday today!” She invited us in, where we danced with her parents and shared stories in their apartment. Cubans are so welcoming that variations of this story could happen every day if you speak a little Spanish and have the right attitude.
What were some of your favorite locations you got to travel to while you were there?
The whole island is enchanting but of all the places we saw, I find myself thinking about Viñales every so often. Nestled in the middle of giant rounded limestone hills, known as mogotes, the small town of Viñales is a jumping off point to visit some undisturbed beaches or explore the lush region known worldwide for its traditional tobacco cultivation and unforgettable landscape.
What was it like interacting and working with locals while you were there? How did you teach your students to approach people for a photograph?
Ask anyone who’s been there and they’ll tell you, Cubans are friendly and welcoming. Despite their lack of material wealth, Cubans are always willing to share what they have with you and they won’t hesitate to invite you into their homes. This tip isn’t specific to Cuba, but just having a sincere smile and making an effort to introduce yourself will always help someone be at ease, as well as make for more genuine opportunities to make photographs or videos. With my students, we set up activities in which they were interacting with Cuban people. We would be in a town, and they would have to pair up in groups of two or three and we sent them off to make some portraits. One time, two of our Jewish students met two of the five Jewish people in this one town. All four of them were very excited! The Cubans invited the students in, and were excited to show them what Cuban Jewish life was like.
Once, while walking through Trinidad at dusk, I spotted an elderly couple sitting out in front of their home and I asked if I could snap a photo of a cat that was slinking around their legs. After a little talking, one of them went inside to grab another chair and invited me to sit and talk for a while, and once they found out I was from Miami, they asked me about my life and began to name family members who now reside in Miami. After 20 minutes, we exchanged hugs and they asked me to come back next time I found myself in Cuba.
Another time, while people-watching and wave-dodging along el Malecón, Havana’s famous seawall, I got chatted up by a couple, Luis and Danerys. They wanted to thank us for sitting close to them because as soon as we arrived, the waves pounding the seawall began to let up. Then, they asked me how much I would charge them to take their photo. I said, “For you, it’s on the house.” When I asked why they wanted me to photograph them, they told me : “While we know we might never leave the country, this photo would, and at least that way we could travel the world.” I think about them and those words often.
How did this specific trip differ from your other travels?
This was a different trip because everything about it was so new for us as US residents, who were only now getting the chance to travel to Cuba. I couldn’t exactly ask friends for travel tips or recommendations, as I was one of the only people I knew who had been or was going to the island. Because of the lack of that community-informed travel advice and the informal nature of Cuba, we learned a lot along the way and played much of our trip by ear. With Cuba, it’s especially important to make an effort to try and see the ‘Real Cuba,’ past the veneer of old cars and crumbling buildings. Try to connect with people and get to know them, as I would argue they are the best part about Cuba.
What were you hoping to capture after editing your final cut of this video?
Just saying the word “Cuba” evokes a wide range of emotions in people. Pain, nostalgia, admiration, and longing are some of them. Growing up amidst the Cuban diaspora of Miami, the island has always been this forbidden place I only knew from stories told to me by friends and neighbors. When I had the opportunity to travel to the island for the first time, I knew I wanted to make a video and I knew that I wanted to capture some of the rhythm and beauty I know to be true of Cuba. I didn’t just want to document my travel, I wanted to provide a small window into a world that’s hard for many of us to imagine.