One thing I liked about Havana was that there was always something happening on the street. Probably their homes were simple, crowded, or too hot—so thy liked to hang out on the street. I was fascinated by this woman just sitting on a chair reading her book, while the world walked by. She was oblivious to it all.
A few years ago, I spent a week in Havana, Cuba. I loved the town, the people and the general spirit of the place and hope to return soon. What I noticed however while i was there was that shooting was pretty easy. The city was a gold mine of great shots and when I would get back to the hotel at night, editing them took a very long time because of the choices I had to make. If you look at it as a “batting average” on most days 1 or 2 good shots out of a hundred is a good day. Sometimes it gets better and I end up with 4 or 5 good shots and on other days I can come up empty (“0”). Thats my batting average—1 or 2 per hundred is a good day.
Havana was different—very different. My “batting average” soared to 10-15 shots per hundred —it seemed I could not miss. I still do not know whether it was the place or simple chance but this has never happened to me in 45 years. It could be that this was my first visit to a third world place and everything was new but this scenario is unlikely. What is probably more probable is this. Since Cuba is a CommunistCommunist country, one cannot just travel freely around (at least not Americans). On this trip we had to guides who would show us around and because of that I stumbled into places I would not ordinarily go. We entered peoples homes, visited boxing clubs, elementary schools and ballet academies. The other thing is that on the occasions I was alone, the people on the street saw me as a curiosity and approached me all the time. This made it a lot easier to”connect”.
It was a bit of an adjustment when I got back because I was expecting the same results in Florida where I live but after a dog or so, I came back to earth. Soaring batting averages are like baseball. Some days, you can go four for four, and other strike out four for four. The latter is far more common, but on those rare, special days…
A few weeks ago, I visited Havana, Cuba on a photo tour. That seems to be the only way Americans can visit Cuba these days but it is not entirely a bad idea. What was interesting to me was that we had an Itinerary of places to visit and photograph. There was a boxing club, peoples’ homes, a school, and what probably interested me the most—a ballet school. It is something I had always wanted to photograph, with their movements, balance, and wonderful gestures which had always captivated me. We were scheduled to visit the school on our last full day in Havana and I was ready—really ready. We had to meet at 10:00AM for the bus but I awake early that day as I had been doing so I could go our for an early morning stroll, since the light in that city was so beautiful at that time.
Three blocks from the hotel, as I walked along the street in that old crumbling city, I stepped on a steel grate in the middle of the sidewalk. I heard a noise, my foot dropped, the grate gave way, and I fell straight down. For some reason, my left hand managed to grab the edge of the sidewalk and I dangled over a dark bottomless pit. “FUCK!” I yelled. I must have yelled again, and then I noticed to my right, a steel ladder. I could not see down, and I had no idea what lay beneath me so I made a grab for the ladder—and missed. Down I fell to the bottom. I was a bit stunned but I seemed for the most part intact. I started to climb the ladder out of the hole, and then I saw about 20 hands at the top offering help and screaming in Spanish. They pulled me out and asked if I was OK. I thought all I had was scrapes and bruises so I declined their offers to take me to the hospital and made my way back to my hotel. By the time I reached the lobby, my right thigh had swollen to the size of a hot-water bottle and the hotel nurse told me to grab a taxi and go to the hospital.
As I waited in the emergency room, I thought about getting back in time to visit the ballet academy. I worried whether I would make it or not. Time passed. More time passed and it became apparent that I would not get back in time.
By the time, I had finished and gone back to the hotel, I realized I was too late and would miss the visit. I was pretty banged up but also very disappointed that I would miss the ballet school. As I waited in the lobby, trying to figure out what to do, Neyla, the Cuban Government guide came up to me,and asked me what had happened. I told her. She asked if I was alright and said that the group would be meeting for lunch at the Hotel Nacional after the ballet schools and would I be up to joining them there. I said i was.
Two hours later, I arrived at the hotel, received a round of applause from the other members of the group, and sat down for lunch. I was sitting next to Peter, the group organizer, and I mentioned that I was sorry I missed the ballet school visit. He very kindly suggested that perhaps one of the other guides would take me back there after lunch, since the rest of the group would be on a walking tour and I probably was not up to that.
I leaped at the suggestion. I would be at the ballet school, on my own, without any other photographers jumping in front of me as I click the shutter or stumbling into my shots. After lunch, I got into a taxi with Alain (one of our guides) and off we went to the school. We went to the director’s office and he told her the story of my accident. “Of course she said” I could spend as long as I wished photographing the class. For the next 45 minutes I had the place to myself to work in. There was nobody except 4 or 5 students, the director and her assistant, and Alain in this huge rehearsal hall.
I am always amazed at where my photographs come from. 4 hours earlier, I never imagined that I would have this shot. Life is an endless series of surprises. I love that!