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…
Every photographer has their own way of working. It doesn’t matter what discipline you practice, you will, over time develop a method and routine getting the best picture possible. I am no different. As a documentary photographer, I have, over the past 40 years developed a way of seeking out and making photographs that bring out the best in my abilities. It all begins with looking. In order to see, one must look. Some photographers like to wander, and as they do they observe scenes or people and then shoot. Others like to hang out—stay in one spot and wait for the picture to come to them. It’s a matter of personal preference. I like to do both. When I leave my house/car/hotel, I walk—I like to get a feeling of the place where I am, the rhythm of the street, the pace , the mood—all of it. So I spend the first hour or so walking and looking. I usually do not see much but every now and then I can get lucky. I usually will just snap a few shots of mostly boring situations—not that I expect anything good, but just to “warm up” so to speak. As I am doing this, I do not look straight ahead. I look up. I look down. During that hour or so, I know there are certain places that have some sort of attraction for me so I go back and then enter my “hang out” period. I just wait and see if anything is happening for me. This can last anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. Then I move on to my next place and do it all over again. All the time I am looking sideways, up and down.
When people walk, they are always looking straight ahead at eye level. It is a very limited field of view. I look sideways, I look up and I look down. I even turn around and look back because the scene that you just walked past looks completely different when you look back. A lot of time I walk over the same streets back and forth many times because the scene is never static. If fact most street scenes change continuously on a regular basis. For instance, a few years ago I was in Austin TX taking pictures at the university near the main library. In front of the building was a beautiful grass square where people were reading, playing, chatting etc. I decided to walk around the square and see what was happening and the results were quite interesting. It took about twenty minutes to make a complete circuit, and after every complete turn, the scene in front of me changed completely. People got up, people sat down. other joined groups, some left, lovers caressed, people argued, children played—life goes on. I walked around that square for about 2 hours—round and round, and every time I came to where I started, the scene was different. I took many pictures. Some were good, some were just OK but I felt good about it, I was getting somewhere. As I mentioned, after about two hours I thought I was done and started looking on the outside of the square. At one end was a wall and across from the wall was a fountain and beyond was downtown Austin. I looked over the wall and saw this kid playing in the distance. He was running around and eventually would make his way closer to me so I waited. After about 10 minutes he was “in range” and I started shooting. This is one of my favorites! As I said you have to do everything because that gets you where you ought to be.