A Virtual Visit to Havana

Continuing our COVID 19 series of virtual visits to fun lands or ideal destinations, this episode of the Show Me Podcast takes visitors to the gorgeous exotic lands of Havana, Cuba. I journeyed to Havana in June 2016 in what became a transformative trip, showing street and travel photography skills.

More importantly, I fell in love with this incredibly beautiful city and its people. Fabled in the American mind, there are both a joyful sense of humanity and a gritty sadness to the city.

This video podcast discusses:

  • The beautiful cityscape
  • Portraits of Cuban citizens
  • Decay and dilapidation of Havana buildings
  • Street scenes illustrating the culture of Havana
  • The vibrant classic cars that are ever-present in Cuba

Images discussed were taken during a visit to Havana four years ago with six other fellow photographers, which in turn produced a photo book, Seven in Ten. The trip was extremely memorable, revealing an incredible beautiful culture.

Below find abridged transcript and full photo essay from the podcast. Many of the featured photos are available for print here.

Abridged Transcript and Photo Essay

[Bonus Pic: This photo of street kids in Havana was not featured in the podcast]
Welcome to the Show Me podcast. We’re back with another one of our special at-home Coronavirus additions. This time is to take you on another trip. Last May, we took you to Olympic National Park. Now we’re going to take you to Cuba.

Four years ago, I went to Havana specifically with six other DC area photographers. Thanks to my good friend, Joe Newman, who has been on this podcast, we’ll put a link in the profile, as well as Nana Gyesie, who has also been on this podcast.

We went down there, and we had a great time. We created a book which was called Seven in Ten, seven photographers, 10 frames. What did they think of Cuba? How did they feel about it? What was their expression?

For me, it was a huge trip from a growth standpoint. I really enjoyed it. I shot a lot of beautiful photos and fell in love with Cuba and Havana. The people there are fantastic.

I’m going to start with the last photo I took. I took it on a photo walk with Nana and Pablo, who was another friend that went with us. I looked to my right and I saw this scene, which was these four men, I assumed they were playing cards or chess.

Obviously, they selected that spot to play in because they were underneath that light, it allowed them to see their game. The dog that’s in there in the background, the beautiful different colors, the blues, the greens, the reds… It just really speaks to me about the fellowship, the spirit, and the wonders that of Havana.

[Bonus pic: This photo of an old woman was not featured in the podcast]
The people there are just so warm, so friendly, it was amazing. They do not like their government very much. That becomes very clear as well. One of the travesties that’s happened in the past few years under the current administration is a decision to turn away from allowing Americans to visit Cuba on a more widespread basis.

They really enjoyed Americans coming down there, appreciated the income. I’m sure it’s been devastating for them in that economy.

If I had to pick one image that depicts the Cuban culture and specifically Havana, this would be it. One more thing before we move on with it, you’ll notice in the photograph that there’s a lot of decay. Three buildings a day when I visited were collapsing in Havana.

Sometimes people would be in those buildings when they collapsed. It was really not in good shape. The country really needed the economic boost. The wellbeing that was coming from the dollars that are floating in to help rebuild the economy, I’m sure again, that that [reduction] has negatively impacted the city and its recovery.

Moving into the Streets

This next photo shows a gentleman walking down the Malecon, as it’s known, the walk on Havana Bay. Again, you see the decay that’s there, but also the gentlemen just walking, he knew I was photographing him but didn’t really seem to care.

For me, the Gulf wall was just amazing. We were there all the time, walking up and down, you see these crazy beautiful classic cars. You’ll see plenty of classic cars today.

If you had to do one thing in Havana, it would be to walk the Malecon and spend some time there and see the culture. We have some more photographs coming from there, but this is really that beautiful island sunrise in the big city, so to speak.

This is Morro Castle, situated across from downtown Havana and it’s a beautiful sunset. It gives you the perspective of the new and then the old. It reminds me of Europe with the Spanish castle and of course, you have a soldier up there by the lighthouse.

One of the most famous tourist spots in Havana and it’s also got one of those classic Jesus statues where they have the depiction of Christ overlooking the city. There is a lot to do and tourists love coming there.

This next photo was also taken in the early morning, a different morning. This was again along the Malecon, some of the beautiful architecture that’s on the riverfront. You can see it, just stunning, the old streetlights too. It’s just really, really beautiful. And in the far distance on the right, you can see a classic car driving away. This is what new Havana looks like, the revitalized Havana with American or European investment dollars.

This is what the streets of Havana look like before they get resuscitated. You could see there’s some vibrant color here and there. There’s some street life happening. It’s still very early in the morning, probably about 7:00 AM. At the same time, there’s decay everywhere, the streets are dirty, the sewage isn’t working correctly and there’s water in the streets.

Along with the townhouses you could see some of the ironwork there, the Romeo spikes to prevent people from going back and forth between the balconies. The balconies themselves, very much like New Orleans or in some cases, it’s that Spanish influence on architecture, really gorgeous.

Portraits of People of Havana

This next photograph is of my friend, Sergio, who was our guide, Sergio Mercenit, and he was fantastic. Sergio is smoking a cigar. I don’t think you could have a podcast about Cuban photography without having a gentleman smoking a cigar in there. It’s very much part of their culture.

They’re definitely trying to resuscitate the Cuban cigar industry in the United States. They were close. It was just a matter of time before the administration was going to let them in. And then of course we had the change between Obama and Trump and that’s all gone again. But Cuban cigars are fantastic, and they have many local brands that are not known to us. If you wanted to, you could tour a cigar factory or a farm.

Thanks to Sergio, we had a great trip. We saw a lot of fantastic things and met a lot of fantastic people that we got to meet. I am in his debt for that five-day journey.

This is Sergio’s, I believe stepdaughter, Diane at that castle you saw earlier in the middle of the day. I just loved this photograph for a whole bunch of reasons. First of all, the people of Cuba are beautiful people. Diane actually became a photography model after this trip. It is an incredibly dramatic-looking portrait, just fantastic. In the distance, you can see a soldier probably checking out what we’re doing, that more than anything tells you about what kind of government there is there.

It’s not the Fidel Castro era and it’s not the cold war era and nor is it the peak of that government where they had complete control of their people, but they are there. There’s no question if you act too much against that government, you will be getting a visit.

I think that sometimes we take for granted the American democracy, our freedom. Our freedom which is definitely challenged per the last podcast. But we do not have this kind of police control around us or army control unless you’re down by Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC.

This is a boxer. We visited a local gym, and this guy was in training. I chose to go with a monochrome with this. I just thought he looked much more ferocious in black and white. The chairs behind him I believe were blue and his gloves were red, but it just really kind of makes you lock right into his eyes, the ferocity that’s there.

These guys are known for their boxing in Cuba, great fighters, and they’re hoping to go to the Olympics. That’s their big thing, so I hope this guy made it.

The next photo is of an Argentine tourist at Morro Castle. Again, a really incredible place masked by the beautiful bouquet in the back. Here’s this young woman who is just smoking a butt, chilling, and seeing the castle.

There are a lot of beautiful people in Havana. It’s one of those remarkable cities, Rome is another one that reminded me of that where everywhere you go, there’s just stunning, amazing people dressed to the nines. Here, she’s just a tourist from Buenos Aires that’s visiting, so thank you for letting me take your photograph. Normally, I would not thank you for smoking, but I think the cigarette added a bit to the photo as well.

This is one of the models that we photographed. We did a model shoot with some classic cars while we were down there. This is one of the classic cars, but again, same thing, another person from Havana, very stunning and very warm.

All the people there amazing, approachable, really enjoy talking about their culture and sharing about what life is like in Havana. Of course, the cars are cool.

They’re not fun to ride in. You definitely miss those struts. You miss the ride you get in a 21st-century car. The 1950s ride is not that, but it looks awesome and it looks cool. They just don’t make them like that anymore. So really a beautiful photo. I love it. This wasn’t one of the more popular ones, but this is one of the ones that spoke to me and made me feel great about Cuba.

Street Portraits in Havana

This gentleman was just hanging out on the street on a Friday night. Myself, Nana, and Pablo went for a late-night photo walk in central Havana, which is not the best neighborhood. This guy was willing to let me take his photograph really quickly.  You see the weather on him.  I wonder whether or not he’s actually closer to my age.

You might think if he was in the United States, he’s probably a 70-year-old guy, but because the health system is not the same, it may be that he’s just grayed early, maybe he’s a fisherman and works outside, you just don’t know. The stark photograph really shows you how life evolves in Cuba.

Look at his house, it’s in decay. There are wires everywhere. It’s not well lit. I think this photograph was shot at like 6,400 ISO. The colors were horrific because of the ultraviolet lights that they were using. So, I went black and white and just a really stunning image.

This next one, this guy was so pissed off at me that I took his photograph. You could just see it in his face, he’s thinking, “Another damn tourist.” What he was doing was guarding the parking lot from having the cars stolen. You could see they’re classic cars, and there are more modern cars there. But they literally had folks there guarding personal property.

Another sign of the way the deeper Havana is working. Yes, there are really beautiful things happening. Yes, there’s a tourist culture in Havana. They are also visited by people on their various cruises. They have people from Europe visiting, but it’s not necessarily a crime-free place. It’s not necessarily the safest place and they have to protect their assets. They hire folks like this guy to make sure things were safe.

I love the cigarette again. I think to me it speaks a lot of volume about the culture of Havana at that time, the smoking, the whole nine yards. And yes, the building is in decay again.

The passion of these two was evident.One of the things about Havana is it is a place for lovers. There is no question about it. People fall in love in Havana and they stay in love it seems like.

These two were on the Malecon, early morning, and maybe it was the end of the long night, they were making out, they were talking sweet nothings to each other. The romance of the early morning hour is evident in that golden light.

This next photo shows some dancers that we met. These two, I don’t think they were together, but they definitely were able to act like it. There was a lot of passion. They were fun to photograph, really a beautiful scene, and again, thank you Sergio for taking us to these folks. They talked to us about what the Cuban dance culture.

Here’s another couple. I think this is a sunset again on the Malecon. They were kissing and before they had come up I have another photo of that, but I liked the intimacy of her laying down in his lap, his arm around her, cell phone behind them, and they’re watching the sun go down together. Another really fantastic scene showing the culture of love that’s there and the Malecon is a central place for that.

This next photo kind of shows you how bombed out central Havana was as we were walking down the street and there’s this guy just rolling a beat up, broken old sofa right down the road. The street is dug up because they’re putting fiber optic cable in [or water mains].

But yeah, it’s destroyed. The light is harsh. You can see broken down classic cars in the background. He’s sweating his brains out. He’s bringing home this kind of treasure that he’s found, something that’s going to make something his house better. It is the struggle of living in Havana.

Decay and Dilapidated Housing

 

I called this photograph Three a Day and it is a building that collapsed. The buildings around it are also in decay and there’s probably going to need some significant investment for this neighborhood to recover. This house was about four blocks away from the presidential palace.

Havana is not in good shape. It needs some major TLC. And it’s probably something that they’re going to be dealing with for decades unless there’s some sort of significant governmental change that happens in Havana. The cost of rebuilding the city far surpasses the resources that are available to them.

One of the issues, people seem to have with the government there is that there is a lot of rehabilitation going into some of the buildings there, that it is corrupt. The government and some of the more well-to-do folks that are associated with the government, the business folks, are pocketing the money rather than reinvesting it in the [community]. They will literally buy people out and send them out into the country and take over their property.

This is one such property, this yellow townhouse, what I would call Malecon front territory. It was facing the Malecon and it hasn’t been rehabilitated yet. These guys are hanging out early morning. You can’t tell without pixel peeping, but it’s slightly out of focus.

It’s really shocking to see this building. Next to it, the one on the right of the building to your left, the green, has been rehabilitated. I’m sure these guys are receiving offers. They’ve probably already been bought out and somebody will rehabilitate that building and turn it into five [star] beachfront property. It just shows you the poverty of Havana.

Even though this one is not in great shape, it is a pretty well-known restaurant in Havana, you got to go up to the third floor. This guy’s watching guard over it, just like the parking lot attendant. If you were to walk in the back of the building like we did, you would see all sorts of decay. The building itself is not in great shape, but nevertheless, you could have a good meal upstairs. It really kind of shows the dichotomy, the almost binary state of Cuban culture in Havana.

This next image shows a woman on the street next to a Che Guevara mural. Now keep in mind, this is not the United States and so the views of some of the heroes of their revolution are completely different than our views of them. To Americans, Che was a criminal. He was killed by the CIA. But there is an element of Americans, particularly on the punk and towards the more left side that saw Che as kind of somebody that was a victim of imperial American society.

That’s how they see him in Cuba. They see him as a hero that was slain by Imperial Americans that were hoping to colonize Havana. You see him all over the Island turned into an icon of the communist government there, of “liberated” Cuba. Che Guevara.

She shows you some more of the Cuban people, right? There are a lot of folks in Cuba of all ages and they live in the streets, they walk in the streets, it’s really a beautiful place. And it just amazing. But look at the building, you again see the decay.

This used to be a baseball stadium. No longer. The stands literally have holes in them with rebar coming out, the colors are still present but they’re grimy and dirty. The whole thing is messed up. There’s a lot more graffiti actually throughout the stadium and underneath of it.

To the left, there was a field and people are just working out in the field. Its day has come and gone and the stadium will probably never, ever be functional again. They will probably have to tear it down and put something new up there. This is probably a territory or a piece of land that will be revitalized because again, it’s right in front of the Malecon. Its proximity to the ocean, to the beachfront, makes it a valuable property.

If Americans come back, it’s probably going to get done. It may get done anyway. More beachfront property on the Malecon.

Again, in this photo, massive decay everywhere. If you look closely on the bottom towards the middle right, a gentleman walking the streets. So that gives you some perspective next to the dumpster, but there’s rubble right there.

This is the part between old Havana and the Western part of Havana by the Malecon which had not been redone yet, it was still in pretty bad shape. I walked two blocks in there and I wouldn’t go there at night alone. It was not safe feeling.

This is the bunker that held missiles during the Cuban missile crisis with Kennedy. Talk about a rich piece of history and you could see all sorts of different tagging that’s gone on, although it’s pretty nice tagging compared to some stuff that I’ve seen. Socialism is dead. Here’s your revolution, the father Patreo Morto. Just beautiful. The lime green color is a little bit crazy, and it’s really, really grimy.

Let’s look at another photo of that bunker. I think I have a second one and you can see right outside they’re so green, even though the light’s extremely bright. I exposed for the bunker obviously.

This was in the middle of like overgrown farmland and we had to hike out there. It was technically a place you should not go to. We had to hire a specific guide to go out there. It was me and Pablo. It was really kind of amazing to see this little place in the middle of nowhere which caused all of these problems.
There it is, history, right before your eyes. This place almost caused a nuclear war.

Finally, the Cars of Havana

The next photo shows what I call the classic car corner because you could see three classic cars. There’s a decayed building next to a nicer apartment building and some cooler colors in this one. But I think it’s a good transition into the cars. The cars are old.

They use old cars because they aren’t getting new ones from America and they haven’t for some time. The autos have this beautiful kind of art deco era look to them. They rehabilitate the cars with machinists that basically fix the engines or create new parts for the engines. Really just gorgeous, gorgeous, beautiful cars that are part of the tourist scene.

This one was left to decay. I love the Coke bottles shoved in the grill, but it is in the middle of central Havana and hopefully that car will get rehabilitated. It may be too far gone.

This is probably more of your standard car. Here’s a woman walking by it, again in the back alley. Beautiful green. I don’t know what that is. I think that might be a Plymouth. My dad could probably tell you.

This is a taxicab stand. A lot of these classic cars serve as cabs. They keep them, they maintain them, they charge Americans really more money to ride in these. They are horrific feeling cars to be inside of them because they have no suspension, but you look pretty cool in them. Really beautiful. I love the oranges and the reds, the vibrancy of it.

Here’s another one. This is a Thunderbird. Man, this thing is just filthy, nasty, awesome, but the car itself is probably privately owned. It doesn’t look like it’s in a cab state, and there’s a young lady in the back waiting for whoever is inside.

This one is an old Ford. It’s a taxi.

Here’s a little panning action for you on the Malecon. I love it because of the color and the background. And of course, it’s a cool shot because of all the motion that it conveys. These old babies go tearing down that road at about 50 miles an hour.

There’s our friend, the model again in the car. I love this photo. I call it super. And that’s because I think it’s a super 88 car. You could see that on the back left. It shows that convertible cool art deco and now chromed up, I guess, repaired Havana vehicle.

And finally, here’s this dude, it’s another panning shot on the Malecon. Here’s an older motorcycle, probably an ’80s motorcycle with a sidecar, which is really a pretty nice ride for that culture. I love the helmet that he has, which is almost a soldier’s helmet, which has become a very popular look now for bikers. Cool shot. It screams Havana.

Final Shots

This is the avenue right in front of the presidential palace. So, you can see it’s all done up. Lots of beautiful Caribbean pastels. You could easily see this being in Miami sans the dirt on the road. And the reality is there was a lot of sisterhood between Havana and Miami.

It’s really just a very beautiful, gorgeous morning. In the far left, you could see a lit-up building, that’s the opera house. This is the epicenter of tourism for Cuba.

This is one of the restaurants on the Westside. Again, it’s an old castle slash fort that’s been converted into restaurants. There are so many great restaurants in Havana. If it ever opens up again, definitely go. You’ll love it. It’s fantastic. The food is amazing and it’s just a really beautiful scene.

This restaurant, technically you’re not allowed to trespass when it’s not open, but they did let me walk about and take a few photos. This is one of the cooler places in Havana and I love it.

I love this because of the Viva Cuba sign, long live Cuba. The somewhat decayed building with the women on the balcony hanging their laundry out there. I forget what the name of it was, the tiled palace, but basically it was this plot of land, maybe about an acre, acre and a half, where the entire structure was rebuilt with glorious, beautiful tiles.

Really just an amazing place to see. I have so many photos of that place. I should probably post more of them. By the way, some of the photos you saw today were previously unpublished until this month.

I did not publish them in my 2016. I just got back from Cuba, so we’ll be posting those on Flickr, and I promise to make at least one of them my photo of the week.

Our final photo is a sunrise. This was my last morning in Havana. You can see on the right side, there’s the Malecon and a few cars there, and then of course the sea. In the distance, there’s Morro Castle.

That’s Havana, it starts there, it ends there. Thank you so much for joining me on this Show Me podcast. I hope you enjoyed a trip to Havana, that it gave you a half hour of at least some sort of vacation spirit.