In the summer of 2012 I travelled to Cuba with the intention of making a start on a portfolio of street portraiture. It was all a bit of a leap in the dark but a friend recommended a bed and breakfast in Havana so I booked a flight, packed a small bag and left the wettest summer on record for the heat of the Caribbean.
For the first couple of days I wandered around Havana trying to orientate myself and acclimatise whilst making notes for potential photographs. I don’t speak Spanish, and English is not widely spoken in Cuba so I knew I had my work cut out making people pictures. As it turned out a big smile and a handshake go a long way in establishing a rapport even with a language barrier.
I didn’t have a preconceived idea of what my photographs might look like but I seemed to gravitate to personal portraits rather than a more candid style and, on reflection, I’m very happy about that. After a few days I hired a local guide to show me around the city. He took me to places I would never have ventured alone in the back streets and I was able to observe daily life and interact with interesting characters I met in the street. We went to barbers shops, markets, a boxing gym, ration shops, the beach and a live music venue. I watched a man and his friends butcher a pig on the porch of a house for two hours and I watched drunken cowboys in a singing dual.
Most of the people I met were very happy to help me out and have their photograph taken. Some asked for money, many didn’t and some refused if I offered, but all of them were friendly and I quickly lost any apprehensions I had about approaching strangers. I’m well aware how fortunate I have been in being born where and when I was and I hope I’m a low key, considerate traveller. I always had my camera in a bag, not out on display. I do that for modesty reasons not security; in a country where eggs and rice are rationed I don’t think it looks good to flaunt material wealth. Besides, I wanted to blend in not stand out.
Cuba is incredibly humid, the countryside can be dusty and it gets heavy rainfall in the summer. For me there was only one camera to take to such a demanding climate. I packed my trusty Nikon D3 and my D3x, as a backup. I am a huge fan of the D3 generation for their uncompromising build quality and the fact that a single battery can shoot all day.
I took four lenses but often left two in my room to lighten my load. The Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 AF-S is a great lens and one that I have made wonderful landscape and wedding images with but I found a combination that was hard to beat; I put the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D on the D3x and the 17-35mm f/2.8 on the D3 and was good to go. The 17-35 is that little bit wider on the short end than the 24-70 and in those narrow streets and little bars you often need that extra room. The 85 is quite rightly a legendary lens and has always been my favourite lens for weddings and portraits. Bitingly sharp and with it’s fabled, creamy bokeh it was perfect for intimate portraits, particularly in the low light where I like to work.
I am really happy with the start I have made on my street photography but I am now addicted and can’t wait to get back to Cuba where I have hatched plans with my guide for further adventures.
If you've been to Cuba and have any advice I'd love to hear it. Leave a comment or email me. I'm particularly interested to make more local contacts in Cuba if you know anyone. If you fancy a photographic adventure for your next holiday drop me a line.
All for now..