Changes in Perspective
One of my favorite sayings is, “if you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” Sometimes predictability is a good thing, such as when developing film. I use the same developer at a specific temperature for an exact period of time with a set agitation routine that I know will give me good negatives. But photography is an alchemy of science and art, and always photographing the same subjects in the same way with the same equipment can lead to a predictability that is stale and uninteresting. I do favor certain subjects and styles to which I am grounded, but I am intrigued by the uncertainty and adventure that accompanies change, and try to keep myself open to new and different things to photograph, and ways of photographing them, to surprise myself, and hopefully, those who look at my pictures.
The itinerary of this trip to Cuba is different from the other times I have been here, which is exciting. After a few days in Havana we fly to Santiago de Cuba, which is located on the far eastern end of the island and is the second largest city in the country. We are restricted in the weight of baggage that we can take on the airplane, so carry only what we need for our time away from Havana. Maybe it is the unusual heat and humidity this year, or maybe I am just getting old, but I feel encumbered and inhibited by my large format equipment and decide to leave it behind and just shoot with the Holga camera that I also have with me. I can think of no two things more different than my Linhof Technika 5 camera and a Holga. Upon learning of my decision, Illya graciously offers loan me his beautiful medium format rangefinder camera, which I gratefully accept.
With nothing more than the camera around my neck and a pocket full of 120 film, I spend a morning walking around Santiago de Cuba with Steve Anchell and several other members of the group, a change from my usual habit of going off on my own. We walk down a side street near the plaza and encounter a woman sitting on the front stoop of a house, and an older woman on a chair in the adjacent window. After exchanging greetings they invite us in and we spend the next half hour or so talking, looking at old pictures, and making new ones.
It is my observation that Cubans with the means have beautiful, immaculately-kept houses. Those who do not get by as best they can, which is the case with these people. They seem to live in one room of a building that looks to be falling down around them. The middle part of the structure no longer has a roof, and nothing more than an old wood screen to separate the living space from the tropical storms that must pour in and make living here uncomfortable. A sink without running water and some shelves in the uncovered room serves as their kitchen.
I make a couple of pictures of the abuelita (grandmother) that for technical reasons will never be seen by others, but I am inspired to use the freedom and agility of the camera to deliberately make other photographs with people in them, a definite change for me. I spend the rest of my time in Santiago de Cuba wandering the streets and doing what is often called “street photography.” In Cuba a more appropriate name might be “stoop photography,” since so much of the life of the people here can be seen and photographed at the interface of street and house. I find a woman chatting with a friend at her front door, a man sitting on his front steps accompanied by his little dog,and two children separated from the street by the ubiquitous door grille.
I encounter three girls sitting on a ledge out of the sun, chat a bit, then ask if I can photograph them. The girl in the middle seems shy and doesn't really want her picture taken, but her amigas pose themselves on either side and support her both emotionally and compositionally, giving me one of those magical pictures that only require the photographer to have the presence of mind to release the shutter. This ends up being one of my favorite pictures from the trip.
As has happened before, inspiration for a future visit here comes from the present: I want to return with my lighter, more mobile medium format gear, spend time in smaller cities and villages, and continue working on a portfolio of Cuba, with people to go along with the many places and things that I have already photographed here.