HERE’S MY LATEST STORY ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHING IN CUBA AND MY CUBA PHOTO TOURS & WORKSHOPS, REPRINTED FROM STARTUPCUBA…
It’s not often you see photos of topless women in Cuba. Especially adorning the homes of old ladies.
I’m crouching on the floor of a humble solar (slum tenement) in Habana Vieja, hemmed into a corner with my back hard up against cheap pots and pans beneath an antique kerosene stove, as I shuffle around for the perfect angle.
Marta, 72, posing in her sillón (rocker), holds an unlit cigar in her lips. Her eyes are rheumy and her weathered skin wrinkled and slightly lustrous with age. She wears many collares (necklaces in Cuba’s Santería religion) of colorful beads, and her yellow flip-flops are perfect complements to the yellow-dressed doll of Ochún, the Santería orisha of sensuality and beauty, among several Afro-Cuban deities that form an altar at Marta’s feet. Behind her, above the blood-red faux-leather sofas beneath a collapsing ceiling, hovers a framed image of Che Guevara by Alberto Korda. Marta calls him “Saint Che,” believing his spirit still lingers.
It’s a perfectly harmonious composition… made better when I suddenly register with a double-take the faded poster of a topless brunette, circa 1980, next to Korda’s iconic “Guerrillo heroico.” Taken in March 1960 at Havana’s Cementerio Colón, the world-famous photo shows Che gazing intently over the horizon with a “hard and determined visage,” thought author Tom Miller, “the head tilted slightly, the eyes burning just beyond the foreseeable future.” To his left the busty Playboy brunette holds her own head tilted slightly, enticing with a come-hither look, mouth seductively open, her breasts firm and perky.
Cuba’s yin and yang duality forever causes me such double-takes. The isle is peopled by characters straight out of central casting and in settings that Hollywood would be hard-pressed to equal. Surreal moments and kaleidoscopic, entirely unexpected psychotropic vignettes transpire like a mind-bending movie.
A more inspirational setting for photography is hard to conceive. It’s this neck-snapping, dream-like, haunting-in-its-fantastical-unfamiliarity quality that makes Cuba as camera-ready and photo rich as any place on the planet.
You’d think after more than 200 visits during 28 years, I’d have shot it all by now. But in this quasi-magical realm where the borders between reality and fantasy intertwine, on any day in any place I’m guaranteed at least one memorably unique double-take image.
In the ‘90s and first decade of the Millennium, my focus was on illustrating my travel guidebooks and magazine stories. Since 2011, when Obama opened the door for U.S. travel, my Cuba visits have leaned heavily towards leading group programs, from helping set up and lead Santa Fe Photographic Workshop’s first Cuba programs to almost 100 trips for National Geographic Expeditions as photographer and “Cuba Expert.” I’ve morphed from an emphasis on shooting touristic venues to a focus on portraiture and street photography (the very stuff of group photo tours), informed by a goal to capture Cubans—not least the warm, tender side of the island’s endearing humanity—in their environment and to tell their uniquely quixotic life-stories in situ.
Havana’s urban decay, and humbling living conditions such as Marta’s, are the backdrop that make the city a breathtaking panegyric of photographic potential. On a purely physical level, Cuba is astoundingly rich and Instagram ready. The talcum beaches and bathtub-warm seas the colors of peacock feathers; the bottle-green mountains and valleys with waterfalls tumbling to jade-colored pools; the ancient cities with their flower-bedecked balconies, Baroque churches, and palaces and castles evocative of the once-mighty power of Spain. Cuba’s landscapes are soft and calming, epitomized by chartreuse cane fields undulating like a great, swelling sea. Royal palms are everywhere, towering over the countryside like columns of petrified light. And then there’s Viñales with its tobacco fields, and mogotes—sheer, freestanding limestone knolls the size of skyscrapers—looming over a broad valley suffused with the softness of a Monet painting.
What these travel brochure and influencer blogpost images fail to capture is the beauty and resilient spirit of the Cubans themselves, nor the almost theatrical idiosyncracies of their daily lives.
As a professional travel journalist, I’m trained to tell a story in words and pictures. In the early mornings, when I set out to walk Habana Vieja, Viñales, or Trinidad, I typically start with a rooftop sunrise cityscape and/or other wide-angle “establishing” scenes to give context as I narrow down on my subject. If I’m working on a magazine story of book, I’ll have a shoot list and thus seek to hone in on a narrative. But whether I have a purpose or not, I’m in perpetual photojournalistic alert mode to grab opportunities as they arise. In Cuba, serendipity guarantees to deliver.
I love working Cuban streets, especially away from tourist zones. They’re an endlessly spontaneous theater. Everyday activities here have a gritty contextual quality that evokes a nostalgic and seductive response, piquing subconscious analysis about the social and cultural complexities of contemporary Cuba. You don’t need to push the envelope to find poetic and emotionally charged images that spark the psyche. Often, I’ll linger at a particular compelling street corner and “work” the scene, waiting patiently for slice-of-life moments to happen amid the non-stop street theater.
One of my all-time favorite images (published as a double-page spread in National Geographic and winner of Gold for “Best Portrait of 2015” in the North American Travel Journalist Association Awards) is of a shirtless man—actually, mi hermano Julio Muñoz—affectionately nuzzling his horse on a street in Trinidad. It’s a simple close-up street shot that speaks volumes about Cuban gentility. (For novice photographers: note the conscious use of the “rule of thirds,” placing the main subject off-center; and the blurry background subject—Julio’s shirtless neighbor, Nelson—purposely placed as subtle contextual punctuation. He was already there, BTW… I didn’t place him there, but when shooting you should survey the surroundings and integrate, or eliminate, peripheral elements to enhance your composition.)
It helps that Cubans love to be photographed, or simply ignore your presence while you shoot. There’s a refreshing innocence to Cubans. They thank you for taking their picture, then smilingly urge you, “Come into my house!” A bonus: Their homes—often tucked up eerie alleyways like secret speakeasies—often resemble surreal stage sets. Shooting a story on Cuba’s near-sacred nail salons for Thomas Cook Holiday in 2018, I found myself inside a dilapidated solar where Selis, 37, has an illegal salón de uñas, illumined from above by a harsh fluorescent light and awash with vibrantly colored pots of lacquer. I shot away as she painted majestic swirls atop her client Angela’s magenta claws. Suddenly a young black girl ran in. Angela, a chubby 47-year-old white woman, embraced her and planted a lingering kiss on her cheek. Click! Click! The resulting image is another of my cherished spontaneous photos that, in this case, opens the viewer’s eyes to race relations, community, and demonstrations of affection in Cuba. You have to always be ready for such fleeting yet seminal slice-of-life moments.
Another time, while shooting in the dusty farming village of Manicuragua, I was invited into a simple wooden home where I discovered a litter of newborn puppies. I asked the daughter to bring two puppies outside and hold them up, just so. Then I positioned her dad in the doorway, silhouetted with golden-hour sunlight behind him. Taking a lesson from my friend David Alan Harvey’s National Geographic, June 1999, cover shot (he wrapped a blood-red towel around the neck of a boy leaning out of a classic car window), I grabbed a purple shirt off the washing line and draped it over the dad’s shoulder for a splash of color. The resulting image—with wide aperture for narrow depth of field to soften the background and focus the viewer’s eyes on the puppies—has its own National Geographic hallmark feel.
While spontaneous images are preferred, don’t be afraid to control your subject, positioning them as you want them to help make the photo’s innate story more compelling.
Such set-up portraits are standard fare on group photo tours. Whether it’s of farmers posing inside a tobacco shed. Or of ballerinas posing on the bed in an astonishing yesteryear mansion where Annie Leibowitz famously photographed Rhianna naked for Vanity Fair. Such shots typically have a well-conceived focal point that, when shot from fresh angles, lend an attention-grabbing narrative aspect. On my most recent photo tour, I set up father-and-son farmers in Viñales for my group: The father behind, in shadow; the son outside, smoking a cigar while holding a gamecock in the palm of his other hand. I gave some edge to my own choreographed shot by a slight tilt of my camera.
My standard sell-out itinerary for Jim Cline Photo Tours follows a classic triptych: Havana, with all its grit, glamour, old cars, boxing gyms, dance troupes, and the Malecón seafront at sunset… Laid-back Viñales for quintessential landscapes and tobacco farms and farmers… And Trinidad, Cuba’s best-preserved UNESCO World Heritage city, teeming with cowboys, pulsing sunshine, and colonial buildings colored as if by Crayola. You can’t go wrong with this Holy Trinity itinerary.
I shoot with heavy gear: two Canon 5D Mark IVs with 24-70mm and 70-200mm zooms, respectively. Plus, I always carry a Speedlite flash for fill-in (never for full-flash P-setting use) to lighten deep shadow and capture slow-sync ghosting motion. A BlackRapid double camera harness helps lighten the load on my shoulders. But any camera will do. Expensive SLR cameras won’t guarantee great photography. That requires an eye for strong composition, effective use of ambient light, and recognizing mind-blowing subjects when you see them. Join me on my “Sensual Havana” photo tour and you might even get to shoot your own topless model or fine art nude in Marta’s home!