There is no shortage of Instagram accounts to follow for images of Cuba. From pics of food and cars to blogs and travel, just search the hashtags #cuba or #havana and you’ll find plenty of accounts to hold you over until your next visit.
But what about something new to look at? Something different? Something that connects you with more than the blissful images of Detroit’s glory days that have been pumped out of the island for years. What about… dogs?
Whether you’re a dog person or not, we have to agree that dogs bring joy and unconditional love. So, meeting photographer Emmy Park, the curator of the @thedogsofcuba Instagram account, who spent sixty days traveling the island alone taking pictures of dogs, made me smile. It made me smile because Emmy’s work sits at the crossroads of two of her passions: dogs + photography.
I thought using my @thedogsofcuba account would be a good way for people to learn how they can help and also just see all the beautiful pups I met.
I met up with Emmy at a coffee shop on Manhattan’s trendy Lower East Side. As I sat across from her trying to pretend that I was a photographer (I’m not) and that I was a hipster (my wife reminds me that I’m not), I couldn’t help but notice how her attention was split between me and dogs walking by the window. Not in a bad way but rather because Emmy simply loves dogs. You can see this in her work, which is brilliant. I remember one time she was with us checking out Cimafunk in the city. Camera to her eye, she picked up glorious shots with ease. Emmy takes photos for the covers of fashion magazines and runway shows. It’s beautiful stuff. But, the common theme that you see throughout most of her work? Yep. Dogs.
My Chat With Emmy Park, Curator of The Dogs of Cuba
Here’s my interview with Emmy (edited for clarification only).
Startup Cuba: Where did you grow up and what got you into photography?
Emmy Park: I moved around a lot when I was younger —I lived in northern California, Japan, Massachusetts and I’ve been residing in Manhattan for the last twenty years. I got into photography in my senior year in high school — I come from a background in fine art (drawing and painting) and one day, a good friend of mine suggested I take a photography class.
Back then, photography was only film and darkroom, no digital or computers. Because digital photography is so accessible and somewhat affordable (depending on what you get) these days, everyone with a camera thinks they’re a photographer. I really liked shooting film, especially printing in the darkroom. I do miss those days although the benefits of digital photography can be very convenient.
Startup Cuba: Your main IG account is The Dogs of Cuba, right? What inspired you to start that?
Emmy Park: I don’t really have a main account —I have many accounts— each of my Instagram accounts is basically like its own gallery, designed for a specific audience based on the theme.
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I just had so many photos of dogs in Cuba that I wanted to start focusing on the dogs, thus an IG account specifically for the dogs in Cuba made sense to me. At the time when I started the account, there weren’t any other accounts specifically for dogs in Cuba except CEDA (Cubanos en Defensa de los Animales), I believe. I’m not an expert on dogs nor on Cuba, but I do have a nice network of animal protector friends in Cuba so I thought using my @thedogsofcuba account would be a good way for people to learn how they can help and also just see all the beautiful pups I met.
Startup Cuba: Why Cuba? Why dogs?
Emmy Park: I had always wanted to visit Cuba — I had seen Cuba depicted in films and seen photos from friends that had visited. I think also as a photographer, Cuba is a place that many desire to visit. I fell in love with the complex country and decided to go as often as I could go.
I really love dogs. I often feel that I like dogs more than people. Dogs are honest, they don’t lie and they will give you unconditional love. I was shocked to see the number of stray dogs in Cuba — I know there are many stray dogs in other countries but it was something I had never really seen in the imagery of Cuba so I wasn’t aware of Cuba’s situation and the dogs.
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Startup Cuba: You went to Cuba by yourself to backpack. How long was that trip and what were some of the main things you learned about Cuba, the Cuban people and… yourself?
Emmy Park: I spent sixty days in Cuba — my longest for one trip. At times I wished I had more days in some of the towns/cities I visited; however, sixty days is unfortunately the maximum for US citizens to stay in the country. I did manage to cover a lot of ground including Isla de la Juventud.
When I see social media posts of tourists seeing dogs in Habana Vieja, they only catch a glimpse of the life of a dog in Cuba and are mistaken to believe that all Cubans love dogs and that dogs are treated well.
I met a lot of really great Cubans I formed friendships with and some of whom I keep in touch with (not everyone has the ability to connect online). When I look at my images, it takes me back to that moment and the people (& dogs) I met — I really do hope that one day I can visit them again and give them photos I took of them. I appreciated the small acts of kindness Cubans gave me — it sounds silly but times when I really needed the bathroom, some families let a complete stranger into their home and let me use the bathroom. One family fed me when they learned that I hadn’t eaten lunch. I did find that Cubans were generally curious about me — a “china” walking around with expensive-looking equipment alone in a small town where tourists rarely visit. When they saw that I was focusing mostly on the dogs (& cats), some people would call out to me and show me their pets or bring the pet outside for me to photograph. These little gestures were very touching and I appreciated them immensely.
Startup Cuba: Did you find that many Cuban families have dogs as pets?
Emmy Park: Yes, many people did have a dog — some as a pet, others more for protection than a pet.
Startup Cuba: What’s it like to own a pet in Cuba?
Emmy Park: I think the quality of life for dogs depends on their humans. I met dog owners who had their dogs always chained to in the backyard or somewhere and others who let their pups roam free in the streets. When I see social media posts of tourists visiting Cuba and seeing dogs in Habana Vieja, they only catch a glimpse of the life of a dog in Cuba and are mistaken to believe that all Cubans love dogs and that dogs are treated well, are spayed/neutered when in fact, that is not the case for many. I did meet many Cubans who loved their pup but also met Cubans who essentially used the pup as a way of making money (breeding puppies). But I do think it is very difficult to get even basic medical needs/care for the dog in Cuba that’s available and easily attainable in other countries because often, the medicine is just not available in Cuba unless someone brings it from another country, or someone buys it on the black market etc.
Startup Cuba: You recently wrote a couple of books: The Dogs of Cuba and The Cats of Cuba. Where can people find these and, what are they about (other than the obvious)?
Emmy Park: You can find the books on Amazon (in most countries I believe) or in your local bookstore. If you are based in the US, you can buy directly from me and profits from the books will be donated to CEDA — when I’m able to visit.
I wanted people to see the beauty of Cuba from my eyes —not only major tourist cities— while getting a glimpse into the life of the dog/cat. The books are meant for all ages to enjoy so I excluded images of abused or extremely sick animals. For the dog book in particular, I wanted the reader to travel with me to the different places I visited by showing some landmark places or various characteristics of Cuba that is only visible in that particular place.
Startup Cuba: For the photographers out there, what’s in your camera bag? What type of gear do you use when you’re on the ground in Cuba?
Emmy Park: I think each photographer has a certain must-have items always in their bag and that’s something that is different for each person and their needs. Because I am often traveling alone, I try to lessen the weight because the only person that should be carrying your camera bag is yourself and it can be pretty tiring in the heat/sun, long distances and packed cars/buses.
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Startup Cuba: Anything else you’d like to tell people who may be interested in photography, dogs, Cuba, or all three?
Emmy Park: If you travel to Cuba, any medicine, medicinal supplies and/or collars/leashes for the pups would be really appreciated — there are several initiatives and individuals who volunteer and help rescue dogs and cats that you can donate to.
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