Thinking of Havana

A good deal of what we loosely think of as ‘travel photography’ is of the Facebook-posting or family album variety – ‘this is where we went, this is what we did, this is who we were with.’ It’s straightforward, innocuous, innocent even: ‘my hols’ as a diary in pictures or travel journal.

Then there is ‘travel’ as genre, an altogether more complex, and comprised (compromising?) form of photographic endeavour. Its most familiar format is the travel magazine or travel article, and its premise is promotion – promotion of destinations, scenes, peoples, cultures. Its intent is to impress, to amaze, to shock or surprise, and ultimately to sell, in the many different senses of ‘selling.’ Its stock in trade is ‘the other,’ as in ‘look how different/fabulous/wonderful/weird/exotic’ this is.

And then, perhaps, at the opposite end of the scale to the Facebook selfie, and standing outside of travel as genre, there are the images taken by the thoughtful photographer who happens to be travelling, who finds himself (or herself) in locations that are outside of his usual experience, but who remains, primarily, a photographer – an observer and image maker. The premise here is not promotion but photography; its focus is the image, not the other.

How to tell the two apart – the travel genre from the work of the traveling photographer – is of course the question, one which has vexed me much as I think about how to approach the complex subject of photographing Havana. For Rob and I have booked ourselves a five day holiday in Cuba, flying out from a wintry Toronto on the last day of the old year, and waking up in Havana on the first day of the new. Havana has been on our bucket-list for ages, and with our move back to South Africa now imminent, this seemed the time to do it. Who knew, when we booked, that we would be arriving soon after the death of Fidel Castro, in a time (one imagines) of questioning and ferment, however subdued things might seem to be on the surface.

How to disentangle oneself from the familiar tropes – Havana as time-capsule, political drama, history-in-amber – and enter with some openness and integrity into so different a milieu and experience will be a question for both of us, just as visitors and observers. How to make images that are honest, alongside the inevitable album variety, that say something as images, and speak to what is seen and experienced, will be even more of a challenge. After all, how many images of Havana are branded already into our collective consciousness?

4 responses to “Thinking of Havana”

  1. I agree. Havana is one of the most photographed cities. Its decay, beauty, its people. How does one bring something fresh to it? Photograph it in a way that is unique? A perspective, a gesture that has never been observed, set down in film before?

    Havana is one of my special places. Not that I ever felt totally comfortable there, although as far as large cities go, it’s safe. Although the hotel staff warned me to never take my passport out of the hotel safe. That first time I was there was in the ‘special’ period — 1996. No food. Only government restaurants with a few allowed in family kitchens highly regulated by the government who set up a myriad of hurdles to their success. State sanctioned graffiti illustrating the US enactors of the Helms Burton Act (I got some great photos of that). Power failures. Women propositioning me for sex. Everyday one fortunate child received the piece of soap from my hotel room. I felt watched — always. One week in Havana totally eclipsed the month I’d spent in Mexico studying Spanish and living with a Mexican family. It haunted me for months. Things have changed since then. Much better when I was there for a few days a couple of years ago — picking up blue scorpion venom for a cancer patient back here in Toronto. A haunting, mystifying place.



    1. Wonderful response! Lots to remember, think about while we’re there, and bring back to share with wine and laughter 😉


  2. shutupandsaysomething Avatar

    So much information packed into such economical space! Especially the news about relocation.

    Will there be expanded follow up as to when, why, and exactly when? And has this altered the relocation intentions of other family members?


    1. As soon as contracts are signed, there will be full disclosure. Our anticipated return to SA will be via an EU project, for 4 ½ years. Plans by my youngest to proceed in the opposite direction, to Canada, remain unchanged, though they are still waiting for confirmation of permanent residence. So there are many moving parts, as you can see already!


Let me know what you think – comments and feedback are always welcome!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: