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?