As you know, I am currently scheduled to co-teach a class in Havana in December. Picturing Cuba: Havana and the Countryside, is part of the Santa Fe Photo Workshops Cuba program, which has been happening for quite some time. For those of you who don’t know about this program here are a few words from the organization itself.
In alliance with Cuba’s premier photographic organization, Fototeca de Cuba, and its director, Nelson Ramírez, our unique programs allow U.S. participants to learn about Cuba’s long and colorful history and engage directly with Cubans from all walks of life. Since we began our Cuba programs in 2010, we have discovered places and people no other organization has access to. Our trips to Cuba offer our travelers unique experiences that are authentically Cuban.
1.You are currently the Director of Cuba Programs for the Santa Fe Photography Workshops, but when did this photography bug(curse) begin for you? I started in high school in 1969. I caught the bug so significantly that I left college (UVa) in 1972 to pursue a career in photography. It took awhile because I had to eat but I kept looking at photos and tried to learn how they were made.
2.What were your initial goals when you became a photographer? National Geographic? Advertising? I wanted to become a magazine photographer and of course I had the “original idea” of working for National Geographic. What opened the doors for me was becoming an assistant for Dick Durrance in 1978. In 1980 I showed my portfolio for the first time to Bob Gilka at Nat Geo. He sent me off with suggestions of how to improve my portfolio and 6 months later I came back and shortly after received my first assignment, albeit for their children’s magazine.
3.Over the past decade you have spent copious amounts of time in Cuba. What was it about Cuba that initially sparked your interest? I have lived in Venezuela, Mexico and Costa Rica and have a natural fondness for the Latin Caribbean cultures. Cuba was the forbidden fruit and Reid Callanan sent me there to see if we could start a new program. To this date I think we are still the only group affiliated with Fototeca de Cuba and the Ministry of Culture.
4.When did you make your first visit to the island? My first visit was Oct 2009. I brought our first group to Cuba in April of 2010.
5.Over the years you have probably witnessed some remarkable events. Anything stand out over the years? I know it sounds like hyperbole but the changes occurring in Cuba have seemed revolutionary. In 9 short years I have seen the birth of private businesses, open access to the internet, the lifting of US travel restrictions from Obama to the reapplication of those restrictions by Trump, the death of Fidel, the election of a non Castro family member to president and many more significant changes.
6.What shocked you most about Cuba when you first began to visit? I was shocked by how little I really knew about Cuba and how politically distorted my limited knowledge was.
7.Photographically, is there is something specific about Cuba that you find particularly interesting or challenging? The biggest challenge for me was not to get sucked into the “trophy images” of old cars, cigar smoking old ladies, old guys singing Guantanamera, kids playing baseball on street corners, and bodies leaping into the Malécon. The most wonderful thing for me was and still is how welcoming and hospitable the people are and how open they are to sharing “Americans”.
8.There are a fair number of photographers who consider Cuba to be a place that “has been done.” What are your feelings on this? (Personally, I think this is a CRAZY idea.) In the last five years I have accumulated over a year’s worth of time in Cuba and I have come to appreciate that with each and every visit I make that there is yet another rich layer of culture, history, and nuance to peel back. I like to think that now I am starting to capture the complexity of those layers in my images.
9.What is the most important benefit you receive from returning to the same country over and over again? Some of my best friends are now Cubans and their every day struggles with things not only have made me realize things I take for granted but to appreciate what is really important. Fidel said, “ Americans do a little with a lot but Cubans do a lot with a little.” That doesn’t mean it is perfect, it is not by a long shot but the Cubans approach each and every day with a doggedness and resourcefulness that is admirable. Most of all they have a wry sense of humor about their predicament.
10.If you had to offer one piece of advice to someone considering a trip to Cuba what would it be? Observe situations for a little while before diving in to photograph so you understand what you are really trying to capture. Most importantly interact with the people by sharing the images you make. This gesture will open doors you never knew existed. I have never had a trip to Cuba where some serendipitous events did not occur.
I find this sort of thing both fascinating and baffling.
I get that Cuba is a different place, and like everyone sensible I also hate those “Trophy” photos of old cars etc. I know you’re a South America guy, Dan.
What baffles me is the need to go to new places at all.
I’m working on a photographic project on the alley behind my house. Literally. And I am finding it to be an infinitely deep well of material. I am planning pictures, chapters, themes, faster than I can shoot them. Personally, I have no need to go to Cuba, or South America, or even to Seattle.
So people who do baffle me a little.
Is there something to say here? Something to unpack? I dunno! I’d love to see you give it a shot, though 😉
I have a different take on travel. I would rank it as one of the top three most important things I’ve ever done. Travel for me is about people, culture, experience, fear, joy, connection and just experiencing the different. Many of my best friends have come from travel. Many of my best contacts have come via travel and many of my best jobs have come from being out and about. I’ve done projects inside my house, in my yard, but travel is an entirely different ballgame. Just to stand on Machu Picchu, or swim in the Amazon, I can’t imagine finding a substitute for those. Watching monkeys move through the canopy above me, walking temples in Cambodia, alone except for a kid with AK at my side, or watching smoke rise from crop fires in the hills of Guatemala. These are some of my most important memories. The photography is entirely secondary. At least now. It wasn’t always. But I had the need to travel from the time I was a child. My mom told me when I was in elementary school. “I know you will leave, you have wheels for feet.” I’m now working almost entirely in the US. Almost entirely in New Mexico. And I’m happy. Cuba would be grand due to many of the reasons I’ve stated. A personal connection, a nation in the midst of radical change and just corners I haven’t looked around. The alley sounds interesting….
Cuba is a fascinating place, as is every country in the world. Unfortunately, when I traveled there (just as Kip also for the first time in 2009) I wasn’t into photography just yet. It may have help light that spark though, my first non-family photo that I framed comes from there. An old car hahah not really, the subject is a skinny cat which happen to be coming out from under an old car. I still love that shot, and also still think it’s the luckiest shot I took.
But really, if a photographer goes to Cuba and cannot come back with his own photograph, his own vision and art. He’s not very gifted, or blind.
I’d love to go back. Dan you’ll have a good time there!
I’ll be fumbling my way around.