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 “Guerrillero 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 slightly tilted, enticing with a come-hither look.
Cuba’s yin and yang duality forever causes me such double-takes. 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.
200 Trips and Counting
Even after more than 200 visits during 28 years, 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 travel guide books and magazine stories. Since 2011, when Obama opened the door for U.S. travelers, 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.” My emphasis has morphed from 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.
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.
Aim for a Variety of Scenery
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 as if colored by Crayola. You can’t go wrong with this Holy Trinity itinerary.
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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 bathwater-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.
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 or 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.
On the Streets
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 particularly compelling street corner and “work” the scene, waiting patiently for slice-of-life moments amid the non-stop street theater.
Close-ups and the Rule of Thirds
One of my all-time favorite images (published as a double-page spread in National Geographic and Gold winner 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.
Take Advantage of the Moment
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 seem to resemble surreal stage sets to those who are visiting the island for the first time. 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, ran 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.
Spontaineity’s Great, but it’s Okay to Pose your Subjects or Add Something to the Scene
While spontaneous images are preferred, don’t be afraid to position your subject to help make the photo’s innate story more compelling. One 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 June 1999 National Geographic 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 towel 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. Such set-up portraits are standard fare on group photo tours.
Choreograph the Focal Point
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 a nude Rhianna. Such shots typically have a well-conceived narrative focal point that, when shot from fresh angles, lends an attention-grabbing narrative aspect. On my most recent photo tour, my group and I worked with father-and-son farmers in Viñales: 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 the choreographed shot by a slight tilt of my camera.
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