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I’m told it’s the world’s longest public bench, the Havana Malecon. It’s a seawall that runs about five miles, providing a gathering place for families, fishermen, lovers, and Cubans who just want to hang out.

A Week in Cuba

I’m back from a week in Cuba with Joe McNally and Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. For the most part, I went there without preconceptions of what I would photograph. The exception is the Havana Malecon.

This trip was very different than most of my trips. First, the mantra of the trip was “This is not a workshop.” We traveled to Cuba under a people-to-people educational exchange. There were no formal classes, photo critiques, or anything like that.

There was also a tour bus.

That doesn’t mean we didn’t learn, though. Joe provided insight and tips through the entire week and I picked up a few more lessons to use in the future. One of the things I really like about Joe is that he’s remarkably consistent with his message. That’s good because my brain only seems to accept a certain amount of information at a time. When I go back for another session to learn from him, I pick up things that I know he’s taught, but I just wasn’t yet ready to receive.

One of those lessons on this trip came from his journalistic roots. The phrase “entire to detail” is stuck in my mind. He wasn’t trying to turn us into photojournalists, but it was great to learn how those shooters approach a situation and know how to work their way through it, even if the subject is something they’ve never seen before.

I tried to practice this later in the week at a tobacco processing facility, starting with a general shot of the group work area, moving to the different processing areas, and concentrating on details, hands, and considering how to tell the story of a tobacco leaf from the time it enters until it ships out.

I’m not sure how successful I was with the photos, but the lesson stuck in my head. Now I can understand how a news photographer can work in 15-20 minutes to cover a story and come out with the material he or she needs.

Some of the best photography lessons have nothing to do with camera or lighting settings.

Photographing the Havana Malecon

Leading up to my trip, I researched a lot of wonderful photos of Cuba. Plenty of people love the classic American cars, but I was drawn to the images of waves crashing against the seawall, glorious skies, and all the possibilities entailed in the combination of those two elements.

Didn’t happen.

I visited the Havana Malecon half a dozen times for sunrise and sunset, but the elements just didn’t want to cooperate. The shot below was from my first trip. The waves were excited, but the sky lacked those magical clouds and colors. In fact, clouds were missing from Cuban skies for much of the trip.

When I found an evening with a promising sunset, it crapped out. Yes, there were clouds. Not magical clouds, though. Just the type of clouds that hid the sunset before it hit the horizon and made everything dull.

The tide was out and there were no waves crashing against the Havana Malecon seawall. That revealed another problem. Rampant pollution.

Rocks and water were covered with plastic bags, cups, and trash of every sort. Some people think it’s rare to see a cat in Havana, but I think it’s even harder to find a trash can. One source told me that some of the trash was due to people who made offerings to the sea. They threw those offerings out in plastic bags, which just wash back up on the rocks.

No matter the result, this is still one of my favorite types of photography. It takes patience and there’s no guarantee you’ll get what you expected. That’s OK, because sometimes you get something you didn’t expect that’s even better, unique, or truly your own.

You also get to see a slice of life unfold. There were plenty of Cuban fishermen around. Never saw a single one of them pull in a fish. There was a couple cuddling and kissing a few yards away from me. Then moments later, they were in a heated argument and I didn’t understand a word of it. I could tell that she was pissed at her man and he knew she was right, though.

I went to the same place nearly half a dozen times. Never got what I expected. Never got the same thing twice. That’s the nature of travel photography.

The Havana Malecon

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