Here I am again with another blog posting about my travels to a place I would call a street photography Mecca, Havana Cuba!
This trip consisted of 10 days solo travel within Cuba comprising 2 in Varadero, 4 in Havana, 2 in Vinales, and finally 2 more in Havana
The birth of this trip came from the desire to do a Photography workshop in Cuba back in 2011. I signed up for a guide-led workshop which subsequently fell through due to too many attendants pulling out. A year later I was still wishing I could go, but timing and funds were making things difficult, so I decided to save money, and do it to fit my own schedule. At the beginning of 2013 I booked a return flight to Varadero for the 12th of April.
Ten days alone in Cuba… I went 8 days without internet access of any kind. 10 days without talking to anyone I’d met before the 12th of April, but meeting new friends every day. 10 days of experiencing new culture, getting to grips with Spanish, and shooting pictures as much as I wanted. Yup this was a wonderful trip and a refreshing change! Whilst I feel the pictures I took could have been better with a knowledgeable guide, the experience gained was way better for going alone. Cuba seemed very safe to me, and I look forward to going back again for more images and experience. Cuba is the biggest island in the Caribbean by quite a margin, and there’s lots more to see yet…
I was up for the challenge. Determined not to complain about the lack of creature comforts I enjoy in Canada, more looking to immerse myself in a surreal environment that is like no other. How the Cubans make it all work is fascinating, and beyond my full comprehension during the short time of my stay, but I long to go back and be bowled over again by this wonderful place. Cuba consumed me on a subliminal level too. I have a new perspective now.
I landed in Varadero, and 2 days later caught the Via-Zul bus to Havana after a little bit of beach time. I stayed in the Cuban equivalent of Bed and Breakfasts, “Casa Particulars”, for the whole duration of my stay. This gave me such an insight into Cuban life and Cuban warmth. The people are so interesting, generous, and gracious, it really was a treat to live so close to them and almost feel like part of their family. When I go back, there will be a number of Casas I will visit just to say hello to owners, beyond looking for accommodation.
Yanilla, one of my hosts, described her Casa Particular as a very old lady, still beautiful, yet with the aid of a LOT of makeup. This is true for most of Havana’s buildings and cars, and it’s one of the things that makes the place so special. The people’s efforts to make the best of what they have with very little funds has to be experienced. Regarding buildings, restoration progresses very slowly, and I wonder if that, in all but the most desirable areas, decay is happening faster than restoration. This being sad, and that being said, amongst the decay there is beauty. You can see the colonial past in the buildings, and you can feel that they still have a role in shaping the lives of these wonderful people.
Havana is not just about its Spanish past, it’s also heavily flavoured by its North American relationship of old, from the beautiful Art deco buildings (of which there are many), to the 1950’s cars aplenty. Car restoration seems to be somewhat ad hoc. The best looking taxis pick up more tourists, so the need for a good looking car is fairly obvious. Cubans love their 50’s machines, and this is yet another complexity to the relationship they have with the USA despite the crippling trade embargo. Another feature I loved about Havana was the almost complete lack of in your face corporate advertising. Havana is like stepping into the past, but how long will it last?
Equipment wise, this trip had me very excited. As usual I juggled various camera ideas and setups in my head before leaving Canada and in the end settled on the combination of the New Fuji X100s with the WCL-X100 adapter, and the Fuji X-E1 with 35mm f1.4 lens attached. Coupled with these I had the usual spare batteries, a lightweight tripod (that I ended up not using), an Infra Red pass-through filter, and an excellent “Think Tank Retrospective 7” bag to carry it all in. My bulky DSLR and lenses stayed at home.
I used the X100s with WCL-X100 wide angle converter the vast majority of the time for two reasons :
1. I love the 28mm (full frame equivalent), focal length for street photography. Wide enough without being too wide.
2. The camera was new to me coming as a replacement for the old X100 and I wanted to give it a good workout.
Mostly I would say using the X100s was a success, remaining discreet, lightweight, and fast in operation. The ergonomic modifications Fuji have made to this camera coming from the old X100 are excellent especially the new focus spot selection method. Strangely I rarely used the new “Q” button for access to the quick menu, but I think some of the items in the quick menu are superfluous to me the vast majority of the time, and I’d love the option to choose which menu items are actually found within this menu. This would be true customization, and give greater enjoyment of the camera.
Occasionally I would pull out the X-E1, especially for shots of people where the 35mm f1.4 lens really shows it’s worth. In actual fact I like the results I get from this lens more than I do with the X100s (which has a non-removable lens), but I now find the X-E1 a little tricky to operate quickly compared to the X100s. The X100s is one generation ahead of the X-E1 and it shows when using both side by side. Fuji seems to be getting closer and closer to the right ergonomic setup for these cameras with each generation, but it still baffles me how a company with this much heritage cannot nail the ergonomics by now. Give me one of these babies during the development stage and I’ll tell you exactly what I feel it needs to be great! (Update, Fuji has supplied a firmware update for the X-E1 now, that allows faster focus point selection… Excellent!)
Whilst this sounds like a complaint, I’d still rather be using these two cameras than any others for this kind of assignment and am very happy with the results I got from both of them.
Both cameras despite being small, drew added attention to me at times. Being a fair haired Caucasian it was pretty obvious I was a tourist already, so I’m not sure if the cameras were any worse than others I could have taken, but occasionally wearing two at the same time definitely made some kind of statement that was unwanted by myself. In this mode I felt like some kind of western gunslinger, and hence usually kept one of the two tucked away in my bag. I will add that I never felt any danger walking the streets of Havana Central late in the evening, or Havana Veja (Old Havana), early in the morning… If I was approached by anyone looking to make some kind of commercial interaction, I would usually pass a nod in their direction to acknowledge their presence, and politely ignore their request to make some kind of deal. It was somewhat amusing how many times I would be told by someone that they had a sister/brother or aunt/uncle living in Europe or Canada, as a means for starting deeper interaction. In this situation I would stay polite and calm, smile, exchange a few friendly words, and then express my “unfortunate” disinterest in the offering and state that I really needed to move on. This often resulted in further words being spoken to the back of my head, but the vast majority of the time it was just an interaction, and nothing more. Harassed? slightly. Bothered by it? not at all. Rude? never. Smile much? All the time 😉
Regarding asking permission to shoot, sometimes I would, other times I wouldn’t fearing a moment would be lost or changed by interaction with a subject. Taking pictures of people without asking can be seen as a little impolite, so I’d always say it’s best to observe a situation from a distance first, weigh up the scenario and then decide. Most of the time I read the situation right, but to some extent it gets easier to read the longer you stay in a country and get used to the cultural environment. Here, the speed and discretion (it’s practically silent), of the X100s with its leaf shutter are a real boon.
I might add more words at a later date but this article has been in the works long enough and I think it’s time to let the pictures do the talking.
One more thing, I’d like to thank all the people Cuban and fellow travelers I met on this trip for making it such an enjoyable experience, and to Melissa who set me up with some good connections in Cuba before I left. Cheers, and thanks for dropping by!