Flirting With Street Photography In Havana
I have never invested time in street photography. Some people love it, and I understand that interest. You go out and never know what you’re going to get. It’s like street photography is the Forest Gump of all photography. So that’s what we did in Havana.
It begins before sunrise in a time called “Oh Dark Thirty.” We’re lead by Kip. He runs the Cuba program for Santa Fe Photographic Workshops and he’s developed a good sense of the place. As we’re walking, he’s telling us stories about the place, the people and history. Each morning, we’re joined by a dog he calls Pancho. Seems this dog happily shows up on his walks year after year. Why should today be any different?
Honestly, I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. It’s the first day and there’s practically no light. It’s dark and most of Havana doesn’t seem to have street lamps. We’ve been warned to watch our step, as there is rubble and uncovered manholes waiting to swallow photographers in the pre-dawn morning. Have you ever tried to discern whether a manhole has a cover in the darkness? I just assumed that none of them did and avoided any circular dark spots on the street.
The reason I’m struggling with street photography is because it just doesn’t speak to me. Show me someone’s street photography and I just see a snapshot. I have absolutely no clue what makes a good street photo.
All I have in my mind is a vague notion that keeps repeating, “get a slice of life.” Well, it’s dark. There is no life here right now, except for a plethora of American photographers wandering around in the dark with a dog named Pancho. Hence, that’s my first street photography experience.
That, and I noticed a pair of tennis shoes wrapped around a power line. I guess that happens in every city.
Street Photography In The City
By the time we ended our first Dawn Patrol session, I had nothing. That’s OK, though. It takes me a while to warm up to a place and get a feeling for what I want. We returned to the hotel, had a terrible breakfast, and then ventured out with Joe into another part of the city.
I saw this guy carrying a bench and it made me wonder. Then I saw his blue uniform against the blue walls and I started thinking of color. When he finally pulled up and yanked out a collection of telephone wires, I found my shot. That was my first slice of life in Cuba. I have no idea if he’s any good at his job or not, but I don’t envy him having to deal with that tangle of cables.
As we’re walking, I’m still trying to come up with ideas. Am I playing with color or motion? Am I here for the classic cars or for portraits? What does any of that have to do with this “slice of life” phrase that keeps haunting my thoughts?
Turns out that all of those things combine as their own elements, their own characters in Havana.
My general thought is to avoid shooting children, but I let that slide a few times on this trip. That’s because school kids in uniform were a large part of the lifestyle that I saw in Havana. They have different uniforms for the levels of school. We saw young schoolgirls walking down the street arm-in-arm. It wasn’t uncommon to find parents accompanying their children at least part of the way to school.
This girl struck me because she was walking alone, and that was a bit different. Combined with the car and the city street, the scene just felt like another slice of life for my newfound street photography in Havana.
There are two currencies in Cuba. Citizens use pesos and foreigners use something called a Convertible Peso. It’s conveniently called a C.U.C., which everyone calls “kooks.” Why you spell “convertible peso” as “C.U.C.” is beyond my reckoning. All I know is that a Kook is worth about $1.20 US.
There are folks in Cuba who register with the government to work as a Dandy. In other words, they put on traditional dress, grab a big cigar, and hang out in public squares to make money from tourists who want their photo. These folks make more than a lot of professional careers in Cuba. I met an E.R. Doctor who earns the equivalent of $30 US per month.
Capitalism is alive and well in Havana.
We were nowhere near one of those squares or street dandy folks are the woman above approached. Joe was quick to realize an opportunity. He pointed out a blue wall and the lady in yellow approaching. Color contrast apparently works for street photography. Find a stage and the actors will come.
I was a bit down the street closer to the lady and she noticed my camera. She smiled graciously, pointed at my camera and said “Photo?” It’s my first day out on the streets of Havana and I don’t want to be rude, so I oblige. The photo you see above is my first and only shot of her. I’m just trying to check my exposure to get started.
No sooner do I look at the LCD on my camera to check the image does her entire demeanor change. The smile is gone. She thrusts forward an old hand and demands “Peso!”
Man, I feel like a sucker. However, I want to oblige. I reach in my wallet and there are plenty of “kooks” in there. The smallest denomination is for ten kooks, though. Now I realize I’ve made two more mistakes.
- I don’t have a single peso to give her
- She sees I have hundreds of pesos
If this old bat speaks a lick of English, she’s not letting it show. I’m trying to negotiate with her to get change, but she just keeps saying “Peso!” This goes on for five days (or so it seems). Joe is doing his best not to laugh at me, but most everyone in our group is watching with amusement. It’s a learning moment for everyone, but especially for me. Finally, a nice lady in our group comes up and offers the lady a single kook and she heads down the street, eyeing every other photographer looking for her next sucker. No takers.
For the rest of the trip, I learned the value of replying “No, gracias” to anyone who approached me for a photo.
Interacting On The Streets
Joe gave us good advice about street photography. It’s not about sniping a photo with a telephoto lens. It’s about meeting people, interacting, and getting a photo of them in their lives. Getting that permission is the hard part, but it’s worth it.
That’s when I knew I was fucked.
I’m not a “people person.” Instead, I’m an introvert. I’m an observer. I’m not one to get involved with other people’s lives. Clearly, I lack the primary ingredient for good street photography. That said, I gave it a try. After all, why fly all the way to a nation filled with Communists if you don’t talk to any of them?
So, I started talking to folks. If nothing else, I’d just say “Ola. Photo?” Most nodded in agreement. A few declined and I respected their choice. There’s no point in asking if you’re going to take the photo, anyway. I figure I wouldn’t like it if I responded with a “no” and some tourist snapped my photo. It would be disrespectful.
Overwhelmingly, the people were nice and friendly. I was also surprised to see just how much of the USA was alive in Havana. This man has a son in the States who is a U.S. Marine. I saw a woman walking with skin tight pants that looked like the Stars & Stripes. A few others had caps that looked like the U.S. flag. They may be cut off from a lot of the USA due to governments, but I didn’t detect any resentment or ill will about the USA at all.
In fact, the only shitty thing that happened to me in Cuba was from a Communist Pigeon. Our group was walking along when I saw the sign for the Floridita bar and decided to grab a snapshot of it. As I raised my camera to my eye, something hit my nose. The commie bird shit on my nose. Twice.
I was keeping notes of experiences in Cuba using Evernote, so this could not go undocumented.
As I said, the people in Cuba are nice. Screw that bird, though.
The Obligatory Che
I had mixed feelings about photographing images of Che Guevara, because I really detested this murdering son of a bitch. A lot of people walk around with Che t-shirts as pop culture, but they never think about the man who lined up his fellow Cubans before firing squads and murdered them while Ernest Hemingway watched while sitting in a lawn chair sipping on a daiquiri.
Despite my own feelings, he’s a part of the history and we found a few places with his image. Part of me wondered if this young schoolgirl learns about his bloody past.
The revolution is something frequently encountered in Cuba. That’s not surprising, as the United States is no different. We also emerged from revolution and we celebrate it annually on the Fourth of July. We talk about our Founding Fathers when debating politics.
You don’t see any advertisements on billboards or television in Cuba, but you see government propaganda and street art celebrating the revolutionary leaders. It’s part of the culture, which is why I decided it fits within my “slice of life” theme for the trip.
The End Of My Street Photography
I woke up for every Dawn Patrol, except one after a late night at the Tropicana. We ventured out a few times later in the morning or afternoon. It was a good way to check out Havana and see more than the typical tourist would find riding around on a bus.
However, I’m not a convert. I can’t find the desire to start wandering around cities to see what I can see. No doubt there are amazing images to be found all over the world, particularly in large cities. Other folks will have to bring you those images, though. I flirted with street photography in Havana, but I didn’t fall in love with it.