People often ask “What was it like?”. The stories below offer a few glimpses into our experiences in Cuba.
Photographing in a group certainly has its advantages: encouragement to push one’s boundaries; many teaching and learning moments; reality checks; camaraderie. On this particular afternoon, however, I set off on my own. We had been funneled into the narrow, crowded Callejón de Hamel, filled with live music, colorful murals, locals and tourists, which for some was an exciting shooting opportunity, but I just felt a little jostled and unfocused. Leaving the alley, I walked along the adjacent road, when I came across a man surrounded by small kittens fixing his sidecar motorcycle. His clothes were worn and his motorcycle had been repaired to a point that it was unrecognizable but it was clear that he was doing something he loved. We spoke in Spanish for a good portion of an hour about Cuba, the kittens, music, and his life in general. He retrieved a guitar from the darkness inside his doorway and proceeded to serenade my camera and me. I stood on the sidewalk, completely enthralled.
At home, I am unaccustomed to in-depth encounters with strangers. We are taught to be cautious and protective, but in Cuba they seem to have another set of rules. I learned a lot about this man named, Tomás Mora, and in the process I gained something invaluable. As we were saying goodbye, he popped inside once more and returned with a touching gift, a Che Guevara peso, which he advised me to keep on my person to help get through difficult times.
– Annabelle Port
Rene had a twinkle in his eye. I wanted his picture. He wanted, “One dollar”. We laughed. I shook my head and walked on. But, a block away I decided I really did want that photograph and turned back. Rene is a 76-year-old flirt and we had a delightful time together as I quickly snapped a few photos. I thanked him and paid him. As I began to walk away, he motioned for me to follow. He took me into an old, dark multi-storied building to his very small apartment. Rene showed me a poster that he had of the Pope, who had just been in Cuba, and a paper visor commemorating the Pope’s visit. He graciously allowed me to take a picture of him beside the poster and take more photos of his home. I thought about Rene a lot over the next week while traveling about the island. On my last day in Havana, I retraced my steps and managed to find him again. He invited my husband and me in and served us fabulous Cuban coffee. I’m sure he used a large amount of his sugar allotment to sweeten it for us. Through gestures and a few words we learned that he does not have any children and his wife has been living in Miami for several years taking care of her father. He showed us his wedding photograph and his monthly food ration card. He has two televisions, one made in the U.S. and the other Russian made. As a practicing Catholic, he’s not too fond of the government. Rene’s humanity and generosity touched my heart. I hope he knows that.
– Deborah Hayes
The crowded neighborhoods in Habana were lined with apartment units, tightly packed with small rooms, some with no electricity. Many people sat outside, watching pedestrians walk by. Children played in the streets. It was my last day in the city. Walking and taking photos of the street life, I became so engrossed in my process, I lost track of my location. Out of nowhere, I heard a voice, “Come in.” I looked up into these warm eyes of a young Cuban teenager. He greeted me as if I was a dear friend. He welcomed me into his small living space. A group of young men filled the tiny room. They were getting their hair cut and flat ironed. Rodny, the friendliest of the group, introduced me to everyone, talked to me about his studies in barber school, and showed me his technique of cutting hair. I felt so at home as if this was my daily routine, to visit him and his friends on my way home, to sit on the wooden bench, laughing and talking. My heart filled with so many emotions. I felt a familiarity with Rodny. He was generous sharing his home with me, even though he was a stranger. Cuba is beautiful because the people are beautiful.
– Le Lu
Shortly after the Spanish American War adventurous Americans, including my four cousins, made their way to Cuba to seek their fortune. In Havana, the brothers established an office supply store called the Harris Brothers, which eventually became a four-story building with the family name carved in stone above the front entrance. The family narratives, along with the old Harris photography album, lured us to search for, photograph, and compare current Havana with the corresponding images from the over 100-year-old album. Our first steps on this endeavor were short–out the front door of our hotel, down the street, to the bright blue building behind a small park filled with laughing children. Above the building’s entrance was the name, Harris Brothers. We were on our way! Inside we found a grocery store on the first floor, with furniture and appliances for sale on the upper stories.
Countless Havanans helped us in this project: the interpreter who found houses the siblings inhabited and the church where they worshipped, the store’s current director who was excited to see pictures of the building during construction along with likenesses of each of the brothers, images he hopes to display. Remarkably, a volunteer guide at the famous Colon Cemetery helped us find the grave of Issac Harris, the only brother who remained in Cuba. Without these wonderful people our quest would not have been successful. We are most grateful to them.
– Julia Gary
Enilia was seated in her small window seat so close to the sidewalk that I could touch her. She was working on one of her paintings when I stopped to ask her directions. We talked for a minute and she invited me in to meet her husband, Gregorio, who she thought could speak better English. He did and we had a good conversation about Enilia’s art, which lined the walls, her teaching at the University, and their family. I asked if they would pose for a portrait. They agreed, willingly. Enilia then presented me with one of her paintings to take home. This exchange was very personal and warm and so typical of Cuban hospitality.
– Susan Neville
Our Newest Best Friends
As we were looking for a particular historical house near the Cuban Capitol in Havana, we were approach by a Cuban grandmother and her twenty-plus daughter. We quickly discovered, with our minimal to non-existent Spanish, that they thought we were looking for an independent bed and breakfast boardinghouse and they wanted to help us find one. Indicating that we wanted a particular address they helped us to ascertain from their spanish-speaking neighbors that the address did not now exist. We quickly made friends with them and discussed, as best we could, beautiful Cuba, as the grandson played soccer, my favorite sport, on the Capitol grounds.
– Allen Gary
The Unforgettable Gift
I love the process an artist goes through when making their art. I love seeing unfinished pieces and, sketches because they give us a bit of insight into the artist’s mind and eye. With photographers, my favorite way to explore the artist’s process is to examine their contact sheets. I love to see what negative the artist choses to enlarge and what negatives they chose not to enlarge.
While on this trip to Havana, I had the pleasure and the great honor of seeing Alberto Korda’s contact sheet with the famous photograph of Che Guevara. I was humbled as I was allowed to handle the contact sheet with Korda’s notations. I was fascinated to learn from his daughter, that the famous photograph of Che that we all know was actually not the artist’s first negative of choice. Rather he preferred the frame #40. But that frame had a man’s head in the left side and it distracted from the portrait that Korda wanted to create. He was forced to shoot another frame. Seeing the contact sheet allowed me to see through Korda’s eyes. I could see not only what he saw, but I could see the way that he saw when he looked through his viewfinder. That was an unforgettable gift.
– Neeley Main
While walking around a residential neighborhood in Cienfuegos, I noticed a man doing carpentry work inside a small home. This created a beautiful silhouette in the front doorway. As I approached to photograph this man, a woman who had been standing just inside the doorway invited me into the home. Once I was inside and my eyes adjusted to the light, I noticed that there were several people in the room. I was quickly introduced to all of them. The homeowners, a husband and wife, were in the midst of some home improvement work with the help of a few friends, while the husband’s mother sat in the room next to her upturned bed.
Although they were busy with repairs, they were happy to take a short break to converse with me and pose for photographs. During our conversation, the husband picked up his guitar and began to play for me. Before I could get my camera switched to video mode, he began to sing Guantanamera. He was soon accompanied by his mother, who began to sing back-up during the chorus. This warm exchange was one of several such experiences I had while walking around Cuban neighborhoods. I was struck by the hospitality of the Cuban people who welcomed me into their homes and greatly enriched my Cuban experience.
– Don Wheatley
Old Soccer Ball
One afternoon, while strolling through the Habana Vieja neighborhood, I stopped to watch a group of teenagers playing soccer in the street. This is a common sight in Habana. Not wanting to distract their play, I stood and watched them play from afar. I soon noticed the strangest thing happen. Every so often the game would stop, a player would hold the ball for a moment, then throw it back in and continue the game. I thought that this was part of a local soccer rule. This happened often enough that I got curious and walked closer. Only then, I realized that they were playing with an old soccer ball, old enough that the valve no longer worked. After being kicked around enough, the ball would lose air and they would have to stop the game to add more air before continuing again.
The broken valve did not stop the play. They continued playing with that brownish, skinless, broken valve soccer ball; it was their only ball. Despite the condition of the ball, they still enjoyed themselves; laugh after laugh, afternoon after afternoon, player after player… the ball witnessed it all. That old soccer ball brought them enjoyment. Far more enjoyment than our modern, disposable things bring to us.
– Timotius Tjahjadi
A Wonderful Cuba Experience
Adriana Martinez set up her Belgian lace exhibit on the Prado at the Sunday art fair. I stopped to admire her beautiful work and we started talking. She told me she was a professor of tatting and bobbin lace. Within an hour, several women who came to the art fair to learn how to make lace surrounded Adriana. Adriana teaches lacemaking at a nearby school.
These lace artists are in desperate need of thread for their art and trade. They often use string as a substitute. Despite the use of string, their work is still beautiful and of excellent quality. We talked and made tentative arrangements for a textile-based exchange when I go back to Cuba. I am hoping to encourage some textile artists to go on Ron Herman’s next trip. Before departing Havana, I received a surprise call from Adriana wishing me a safe journey. Adriana and the other women are so sweet.
– Joan Sperans
On my return trip to Cuba I was impressed with the number of people engaged in official and unofficial commerce. Street food was available on every street in Old Havana. There was a used book market just around the corner from our hotel. Even along the Malécon the locals were selling snails, worms, fishhooks, and sinkers to locals. Lots more cell phones this year too!
– Bob Hills
While exploring the backstreets of Trinidad, I spotted an older man sitting outside his front door with a baby chick on his knee. As I approached and began photographing, he smiled and invited me into his home. Although we had some difficulty communicating, he expressed quite excitedly that he wanted me to wait while he retrieved something from behind the house. As I stood in his living room, he went to the backyard and returned, prized rooster in-hand, and beaming with pride. I photographed him as he stood holding his champion gamecock, adjusting the rooster’s head and body for best viewing. Before leaving, I thanked him whole-heartedly for inviting me into his home, and took down his address so that I could send him a copy of this photograph.
– Ron Herman