It was as if the people of Cuba decided to counter their country’s problems with color; to take solace in a bombardment of blues and greens, and celebrate in yellows and reds. Everything from the crooked colonial townhouses to the chugging old cars contributes to this cacophony of color.
It is only muted by the dust and dirty exhausts, but even that lends the air to a hazy, dreamlike quality, one which any photographer would want to capture. The problem in Cuba is not what to photograph, but what not to photograph.
So, pack your camera, and here are some tips to prepare for your trip:
1. People here are very friendly. Nevertheless, it’s polite to ask before taking someone’s photo. No one I met had any objections, and many had a lot of fun with it. Kids would run up to me and make camera signs with their fingers then pose like rock stars and girls would ask, giggling, if they were going to be famous now. A photographic print makes for a lovely gift too for any friends you make.
2. With portraiture photos, talk to people while taking their picture. It makes them less nervous. Try to snap the photo while they’re talking and you’ll get them at their most natural.
3. You’ll see many women dressed in traditional costume wandering the plazas with fruit in their headdresses carrying baskets under their arm or with a cigar in their mouth. They, amongst many other characters of the old town, make a living from posing for photographs - generally $1 is sufficient.
4. If you are a vintage classic car fan head for the area around Capitolio Nacional where car owners congregate to offer rides to tourists touting anything from 50s perfectly polished Cadillacs to audacious Harleys. They will most likely let you photograph the car for free, although not with you sitting in it. For more authentic Cuban cars, just hang out around Parque Central further up the road, a place where old men come to argue about baseball. Dozens of clattering old cars fly by every second and many park up in rows alongside the Gran Teatro.
5. Hotspots like Habana Vieja and Trinidad are very touristy. Get up early to shoot the buildings and views without other holiday-snappers in your way. The light this time of day is especially beguiling, as well.
6. Bring everything you need with you. This applies to all your packing, but especially with photographic equipment. If you forget your charger or bring the wrong SD card you will be hard pressed to find an equivalent.
7. I took 3000 photos on average per month. As I said, Cuba is a photographer’s dream. So take a HyperDrive or any device for backing up so you don’t lose all your hard work.
8. A UV filter is a handy addition to protect your lens from dust and scratching and essential if you’re shooting in film due to the bright sunlight.
9. Cuba is, in general, an incredibly safe and welcoming place to travel. However, as in any other country with poverty issues, walking around with an expensive camera around your neck does make you a target. Don’t let this stop you from exploring, but just use the same caution you would use elsewhere. I suggest purchasing a hidden camera case - these are easy to find online - so when your camera is away it looks like you’re just carrying a normal shoulder bag.
10. Finally, for an example of fantastic Cuban photography the Fototeca de Cuba www.fototecadecuba.com (Mercaderes 307, between Muralla and Teniente Rey, Plaza Vieja, Havana). This small gallery demonstrates just some of the creative talent here and you’ll get a glimpse of this country through Cuban eyes.