CUBA IN FIVE DAYS
My travels are a mix of road trips through the wild west and adventures that occasionally require a few extra vaccines and a visa. While the prep varies somewhat, one thing that remains constant is my desire to see places with dramatic and diverse landscapes. When Adobe invited me to participate in a workshop for Lightroom mobile in Cuba earlier this month, I was thrilled with the prospect of visiting the country, but curious to see how far I could push myself creatively. There are pristine beaches and rolling green hills on the island, but I knew most of our locations would be in and around Havana.
So what’s a landscape photographer to do in an urban environment? Experiment with new styles and subjects, of course!
I studied film and digital media in college, and I dabbled with street photography before finding my groove with landscapes and wildlife some years later. In late 2005 I remember cruising around a deserted neighborhood in Oakland during golden hour with the mission of making an otherwise drab location come to life with the late afternoon light. A perfectly backlit dandelion surrounded by shards of sparkling glass was my best shot from that set, and it’s still one of my favorite photos to this day. That entire project was done on black and white film, and at that time, my biggest inspiration was James Nachtwey, who almost exclusively shoots B&W.
For this project, I wondered what going back to monochromatic imagery might do. I shot this trio of images in color, but ultimately decided that they were stronger in black and white. I wanted to capture the desperation of the caged bird, and I wanted to focus on the features of the gentleman above. I wanted the subjects to speak, and converting these images to B&W allowed me to do just that, with some very minimal edits. Pulling up the contrast and clarity and blowing up the highlights brings all kinds of things to life that you might not notice in a color photo.
While black and white photography might be my first love, nothing makes me giddier than golden light.
Before this trip I imagined what sunrise in the streets of Havana might look like. Perhaps a lone black cat with a crooked tail would wander into the middle of a magnificently-lit alley at 7am?
As it turns out, there are plenty of alley cats, and the early morning light is nothing short of magical. My friend and fellow photographer Chelsea had a moment with one particularly curious feline, and I just so happened to be at the right place at the right time with my camera. You can’t plan for moments like these, and when they happen, stopping time with the shutter button seems like the only logical thing to do. The backlighting was so perfect in this shot, I didn’t need to do much in the way of editing, and I was able to process this on my phone on Lightroom mobile after downloading the raw file. I pulled up the yellow tones and made them warmer, I boosted the luminance of the reds and I increased the shadows and contrast, and that was about it. This was easily my favorite image of the trip.
But was it my favorite moment? No. That happened two days later when we headed to Vinales, the lush and rural part of the island. We were hit by a late afternoon rainstorm, and I snapped this shot about 10 minutes before it started pouring. We saw lightening in the sky and smelled the rain before it was over us, so you can probably imagine the smile on my face as the storm hit. Warm rain is one of my favorite things (and something I don’t get to experience all that often), so feeling the drops on my skin and watching them bounce off of the vegetation was a sensory overload in the best possible way. I had an umbrella with me, but I happily would have danced in the rain for hours had we not been hopping on the bus and heading back to Havana. And if you know me, you know this: I'm most definitely not the dancing type.
I found the locals to be warm, friendly, and quite tolerant of my embarrassingly bad Spanish.
I had a conversation with a young girl in a restroom who complimented me on my bracelets, and I joked around with a 51-year-old woman in the arts district about our ages. She looked about 38, and we had a pretty entertaining conversation about dating and men.
Despite something occasionally getting lost in translation, everyone on the island spoke the same language when it came to handling the heat and humidity. From knowing glances to feeling like I was looking in a mirror when I saw beads of perspiration dripping down the faces of everyone around me, we were all experiencing the same sensation. Salty, sweaty skin and relief when the breeze hit. As much as I rely on sight, taste and sound to experience a country for the first time, there is really something to be said about the way your body responds to the climate. It's a feeling that sticks with you long after you've left, and even if it's unfamiliar and slightly uncomfortable, you'll find yourself missing it. I know I do, and I've only been home for a week. Adios Cuba, y espero verte pronto -- I hope to see you again soon.
If you're curious to see what else I got into during my time in Havana and Viñales, here is a short video chronicling the highlights of my time in Cuba: