As I’ve mentioned before, in the center of Havana lays Parque Central, an oasis of wealth and tourism that is so opposite of anything more than a block away.
Fast forward to my last day in Havana. It’s 5 o’clock and I’m still on the prowl for opportunities to photograph the people and culture of Cuba. Jennifer Spelman saw me in the lobby of our hotel and asked me if I’d like to meet Paticia and see her home, “She lives close by.” About 100 feet from the hotel and kitty corner to the building is a beautiful bakery, with prices only tourists could pay. We stopped in because “Paticia loves baked goods”. After buying some lovely looking baked goods, Jennifer took me to a barely noticeable door right next door. When someone unlocked it from the inside, I entered a different world. In spite of the facade seen from the square which included the aforementioned baker and state-sponsored restaurants (again, for tourists), we found ourselves inside a shell of a building is horrible disrepair. Beautiful marble and iron work of 100 years ago was cracked, rusted and falling apart. We climbed the three floors up to Paticia’s apartment where a neighbor let us in to the common eating area for all the dwellings on that floor.
The Neighbor ©2015 Alan Lawrence
We knocked on Paticia’s door and was met by a wonderful woman that, despite her poverty and poor health due to a stroke two years prior, was full of spirit, spunk and, well, life. She immediately took to me as I did to her. She showed us photographs that one of my fellow travelers, JoAnn Rosen, had taken on a previous trip. She was so proud of those images. Her husband was there as well. A gentle soul, he showed me to one of the two rockers in the room and brought in the two electric fans they had to keep me cool.
On our very first night in Cuba, Mary and I struck out on our own to wonder the streets of Havana. Little did we know what was in store. When traveling, I love to get lost. Getting lost allows you to photograph what happens without any planning. It’s easy to do in Havana, but, as I later learned, pretty much all streets led back to Parque Central, the central square of Havana where our hotel was located.
Immediately, we were on sensory overload as the streets of Havana provide a feast of sights, sounds, smells… of humanity struggling to make ends meet. Havana is a city in flux. The condition of the buildings are somewhere between completely collapsed or getting repaired in preparation for the new economy hopefully brought on by the lifting of the U.S. embargo. The streets are full of rubble. Rubble from crumbling buildings, rubble from the laying of cable, water lines or other forms of infrastructure (all dug and built by hand) and rubble from simply things in ruin. It’s a dusty place.
Sifting (Nikon D4s, 1/160sec at f/1.6, 12800 ISO, 35mm) ©2015 Alan Lawrence
As we walked, we happened upon a family working together on one of these piles. With a hand made sifter, they were going through the amassed piles of rocks and debris sifting out the sand to make huge and, obviously, heavy sandbags. I later learned that these bags were used to fortify parts of their homes, sold on the black market to create concrete and other things, or saved for later use. With exaggerated pantomime, I asked if I could photograph them. They welcomed me to shoot and showed us what they were doing. As the week wore on, I was struck by how the Cuban people utilized everything they could find to create things they could use. There is no waste in Cuba.
(Sony A6000, 1/60sec at f/8, 100 ISO, 15mm) ©2015 Alan Lawrence
Havana has a plethora of taxis. Some have meters, most don’t. The first thing you learn about taking a taxi in Cuba is to negotiate the price before getting into the cab. It’s really hard to know when or if a cab that stops for you is actually sanctioned. To me, it really didn’t matter as long as we were clear on the price and he could get me where I was going. Let’s face it, I don’t look Cuban, so wherever we went, we were constantly asked if we needed a taxi. Apparently, Cubans know Americans don’t like to walk.
Where are you from? United States. America? Yes. Obama is bringing us hope and change. Very good. Would you like to take my picture? Gracias. Please, come in. Thank you. Cuba. The country that the world has forgotten. A neglected land with proud and hopeful people. A strange world where people who have virtually nothing are proud of their heritage, welcome strangers into their homes and have hope beyond reality. That’s Cuba. And coming from a place where entitlement rules the land, it was an unbelievable breath of fresh air.
(Nikon D4s, 1/40sec at 2.8, ISO 1600, 35mm) ©2015 Alan Lawrence
One of the first things you notice is people are out in the streets talking to each other. Everywhere you look, people are actually interacting with friends and strangers alike. There are no cell phones, stock markets, cable television, Game Boys, laptops, iPads, iPhones, iThis or iThat. No texting each other at the dinner table. Yes, they actually talk to each other just like our grandparents did. It’s quite wonderful and liberating. It doesn’t take long to notice the lack of socio-technology and, surprisingly, appreciate the lack thereof.
Cuba takes you by surprise. It sneaks up on you. I can see how easily one can become obsessed with the Cuban people and culture. Only ninety miles from the U.S. mainland, it’s a 50-year time shift to a time where hope and a smile still mean something.
In the morning, I’ll be boarding a charter flight to Havana, Cuba for a week’s photographic exchange. I’ve just learned that part of our itinerary will be visiting the National Ballet Company on the first morning. I’m hoping to photograph a children’s boxing gym while there.
Cuba is on the cusp of major change. With President Obama opening relations with Cuba, everything will change… and quickly. I hope to capture the essence of the Cuban people now, prior to the change. My plan is to slow down, absorb, watch and engage. The only way to truly capture the nature of the people is to develop some sort of relationship, however brief it may be, prior to pressing the shutter. When you can connect with your subject, I believe the viewer of your image can also make the same connection. That’s what I’ll be trying to achieve during my very short visit to this beautiful and fascinating country. I hope to share some of these images with you soon.
In the meantime, I spent a couple of days in the Art Deco district of Miami, also known as South Beach. While I found South Beach to be extremely over crowded and hot, it was really fun to see the art deco architecture. Spring break is upon us, so the streets were crowded with cruise tourist and drunk, half-nude kids. Fun to watch at a distance. But it was these old buildings that fascinated me. Unfortunately, the good light only lasted minutes, if that. The sun was hot and harsh almost instantly, making it difficult to find shadows, highlights and texture. But, I did get this one shot that I like a lot and I think it sums up what the art deco looks like.
Here are two interpretations of the same subject. The black and white seems, to me, to have a timeless feel. The color shot shows how animated these buildings actually are. I feel like I was on the set, had there actually been one, of the Jetsuns.