Seeing Cuba: Impressions

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.

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(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.

I went to Havana as a photographer and left possessing a greater appreciation for the life I have and the country where I was fortunate to be born. Needless to say, it was a life changing experience and I don’t use that term lightly.

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(Nikon D4s, 1/125sec at f/11, 1600 ISO, 85mm) ©2015 Alan Lawrence

After arriving at the Hotel Parque Central, an oasis of all things gluttonous, where until 2007, the doors were closed to all Cubans except the workers, I ventured out with camera in hand. Just outside its doors, I met Julia. Julia and I became good friends in a very short time. Making friends in Cuba is quite easy, but I was immediately taken by Julia. As the week wore on, I came to see that she embodies all that is Cuba and Havana. An upbeat, happy, spirited, smart woman taking what she has and making a better life. I was lucky enough to spend an entire day with her later in the week, but more on that later.

Anyway, fast forward 12 hours to my first dawn patrol. Dawn patrol is photog-speak for getting up at an un-Godly hour to hit the streets before the sun rises in order to see the best light. As it turned out, my favorite shots were all taken at dawn patrol. The best part of the morning was walking out of the hotel and being greeted by Macho, a stray dog who makes the streets his home and, in particular, the street in front of the Parque Central Hotel.

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(Nikon D4s, 1/800sec at f/1.4, 12800 ISO, 35mm) ©2015 Alan Lawrence

I went to Cuba as part of a person to person cultural exchange, arranged by Santa Fe Photographic Workshops and led by Jennifer Spelman. This is the 4th year of their program and since the first, Macho has greeted the folks on dawn patrol. Every morning at 6:30am, we’d hit the streets looking for the perfect shots joined by Macho and two of his friends. He’d stick with us for over 2 hours and several miles as we wound our way through various neighborhoods of Havana. This dog, with his tattered ears and scarred body, is a survivor who knows the streets. He made our morning walks more enjoyable.

On the second or third patrol, we were walking down a busy boulevard and, as usual, Macho and two of his buddies were with us. One of the dogs crossed the street to join us in front of an on-coming truck. We all froze in horror as we watched the truck barrel towards and overrun the dog. Missing the wheels, he tumbled over and over along the undercarriage and out the other side. I couldn’t move. I’m not sure how, but the dog exited the other side of the truck and hauled ass until he disappeared 3 blocks away. It wasn’t until now, with the week behind me, that I see that incident as symbolic of the survival spirit of the Cuban people. It’s impressive, to say the least.

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(Nikon D4s, 1/125sec at f/11, ISO 1400, 85mm) ©2015 Alan Lawrence

In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing what I saw, felt and heard while in Cuba here on my blog. I promise, it won’t be as long winded as this dissertation. I admit to having a few glasses of wine as I sit an write this on the plane back to Seattle, but the feelings are real and the story has many layers. If you got this far, thank you for listening and I hope you enjoy the images I made. My goal was to capture the spirit of the Cuban people. Whether I succeeded or not, is up to the viewer. A lot of great images have come out of Cuba, but these are mine and this is my story. I’m excited to share it with you and I hope you enjoy the journey.

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