Every morning, our group hit the streets of Havana at Dawn. Actually, we were out there before the dawn. If you want for dawn to leave, then you've already missed your opportunity.
I went to Cuba with a group from Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. They've been running trips to Cuba for years and did an excellent job of organizing everything from hotels to transportation to local guides. The trip had the mundane title of Picturing Cuba. Mundane, but accurate. They did a great job of getting us close to people who live and work in Cuba, and those folks let a bunch of curious American's crawl around with our cameras.
Welcome to street photography. I hate street photography. That's because I have absolutely no idea what I'm supposed to do.
All I could see was an unsightly mob of folks walking around the streets of Havana looking for something interesting. What makes for an interesting street photo? I have no idea. That's when the notion popped into my mind that would guide me through the week.
A day in the life.
That's it.? Seriously, I couldn't come up with any other concept than “a day in the life” for my photos on the streets of Havana. It occurred to me that my photos won't win any prizes with this attitude.
Rolling Museum on the Streets of Havana
When people go to Cuba, they expect to see the streets of Havana filled with classic American cars. No doubt, there are plenty of them still running. Pre-Castro era cars from Detroit with absolutely no regard for emissions control. When I got home, the car guys were practically salivating at the idea.
There are folks who think that opening trade with Cuba will give them opportunities to make a fortune buying classic American cars from inexperienced Cubans.
Think again, guys.
Cuba may be a Communist nation, but capitalism is alive and well. Everyone has something to sell. That's because they can't make ends meet with the paltry pay of their state sponsored jobs. Salaries run about $25-$30 per month, even for professionals. I met an emergency room doctor who was hawking plumbing parts in his spare time.
Suffice it to say that being isolated is not the same as being naive.
In any case, the cars are not much more than shells of their former glory. Since Cubans can't buy replacement parts, they have to get creative.
Some make their own parts. Others end up taking what they have an replacing the things that break down. Those classic American car engines have been replaced with everything from Russian tractors to dishwasher parts.
Take a look at the seat inside the Chevy above. When you get into one of these old cars, you're lucky if the seats are even bolted to the floor. I crawled into the back seat of a 1938 Ford one night when a few of us were going to Club Tropicana. As soon as I sat down, the other end flew up in the air.
The owners take pride in their vehicles, and yet they're also completely frustrated with them. Even if you find two of the same make and model, each one will be unique due to decades of impromptu customization.
I'm not a car guy, so I didn't spend as much time seeking them out for photos. To be fair, Cuba isn't relegated to classic American cars. There are modern cars on the roads, old Russian cars, and state of the art tour buses from China. The prices of new vehicles keep them out of the hands of most citizens. If you see something new, it's likely owned and used by the government.
Architecture and Decay
Havana is an old city in a tropical climate. It's an interesting collection of color, design, and crumbling buildings.
On average, ten buildings per day collapse in Havana due to a combination of age, environment and neglect. Cuba is in critical need of infrastructure reformation. When the Soviets pulled out, the artificial economy that propped up Cuba left with them.
Without any money to restore buildings, Cuba turned to tourism for income. At first, the money earned from tourism supported construction and reformation of these old buildings. Then the Cuban Military got wise and decided to get in the same business. About 80 percent of the tourism earnings now support the military.
There is beauty in decay. On our first day out, Joe McNally remarked that you would pay $12,000 for an artist in New York to create a distressed background like the buildings all around us.
Government buildings fared much better, though. Here's an iPhone snapshot of the stained glass ceiling in the Palacio del Centro Asturiano.
Havana has a great mix of architecture. Everything from Art Deco to Spanish Colonial and ramshackle huts. You can see centuries of design within a few blocks of each other.
Our hotel had plenty of modern conveniences, from flat screen TVs to Internet service (which I didn't bother trying). The air conditioning worked fine, the water pressure was strong and the service from the staff was wonderful. They still tell you to avoid the tap water, though. You go through a lot of bottled water when visiting Cuba. Let's just say that it's cheaper as you get out of the hotel and far beyond the streets of Havana.
Every country has its symbolism and historic icons. Cuba is no different.
I was urged to get a shot of the “Green Che” while I could, as this building is on the verge of collapse. For all I know, it may no longer be there.
Signs of Cuba
Just in case you forget where you are, Cuba has some cool signs.
The Wonderful People of Cuba
Photographers go crazy with all of the opportunities in Cuba. The most beautiful part of my visit had to be meeting the people who live there. I kept running into overwhelmingly friendly and kind people. They work. They play. They invited us into their homes to see how they lived. Those people are the best part of the island.