The Look

    Photographers are known to suffer from an affliction called GAS: Gear Acquisition Syndrome. In order to make better photographs, we think we must have the latest, greatest, fastest, smartest, highest-pixel count, sleekest, lightest DSLR with which the evil marketing people at Nikon and Canon are currently tempting us. Old-school film photographers like me are susceptible to a regressive form of GAS. We covet older, bigger, antiquated cameras that others consider obsolete. This is just the first step down a dark path. After all, the “best” camera in the world is useless without an assortment of lenses. One needs a tripod on which to perch this magnificent setup, and there is the never-ending list of accessories, not to mention bags and cases to store it all. Once acquired, gear is never disposed of even when it has been replaced by something “better,” unless money is needed for the next fix.

    But there are things more important than equipment that are needed to make good photographs. They are intrinsic qualities that cannot be ordered from B&H Photo or bid on at eBay, but must be discovered and developed and refined by the photographer. For me, an important quality is curiosity. When I think about photographs I have made that most satisfy me, I realize that wondering helped me find them. What is around the next bend in the trail or on the other side of that fence? How can I isolate my subject from its surroundings, simplify the composition? How would this look at night, or in fog? What if I break that rule?

    It is Saturday morning and Habana Vieja is slowly waking up. Cubans are walking from the local panadería carrying loaves of aromatic, freshly baked bread for breakfast. The tourists have finished their breakfasts in the hotel dining rooms and are beginning to prowl the shops in search of that perfect souvenir of their visit to Cuba. I wander down a street with my camera at the ready and my mind open to the possibilities. The sound of voices coming from the open windows of a building piques my curiosity, so I walk up to the door where I am immediately noticed, invited in, and learn that a class on hair styling is in progress. In one area a man demonstrates on one of the students while the others pay close attention. His mother, who by her demeanor is clearly in charge, gives me a tour and then goes back to braiding the hair of an attractive young woman. La jefa (the boss lady) grants my request to photograph her at work; the younger woman apparently has no say in the matter but seems to have decided that she can at least give me a little attitude. Folding her arms, she sits up a little straighter and stares back into my lens with the same unblinking intensity that it does her. Her gaze conveys that she knows she is pretty, and probably also knows that is the reason I want to make this particular photograph.

    I have never quite gotten accustomed to the directness of Cuban women. Generalizations are dangerous, I know, but it seems that unlike many women in other places who avoid eye contact with men they do not know, Cubanas often look first. And far from being a demure glance, the looks are candid, obvious, inviting, and often accompanied with a smile or greeting. Sometimes the women are jinateras offering a certain kind of “entertainment” to foreign men; others are husband-shopping, or maybe want someone to buy them a nice dinner. But mostly, I think, they are just being Cuban women: confident in their appeal, not ashamed of their appearance, appreciative of the looks that they get. At times I have the impression that not looking back gives offense here. Far be it from me to do that.