I was born at the end of the Cold War and never knowing for sure if I’d ever walk the streets of Havana. Throughout my life, there was a sort of taboo associated with talking about Cuba and the Castro regime. You didn’t get a constant stream of news regarding Cuba and it was seldom featured above the fold. I’d ask my elders, “What’s up with Cuba?” and the response often was brief, with the “C” word plastered onto whatever comment like a scarlet letter. Still, as a Dominican, I’ve always felt a sense of distant brotherhood to Cuba as one of the Greater Antilles. Like siblings, our birth and upbringing were very similar. Yet we took such drastic antithetical turns in the twentieth century, creating a stark contrast between the two countries’ development. Either side was marred by a profligacy of its political ideologies. But I was certain that, like seeing a distant sibling, the shared DNA would bring us together as if our roads never diverged. And the only way to capture that life-long distance from a place that shares your DNA is through the magic of film photography, because this familial reunion deserves nothing less than being shared through rich, vibrant, grainy photographs that I could touch and stow away for later viewing.
Planning a trip to Havana was daunting. And the apprehension does not totally escape you after you land as you’re navigating through unchartered territory while disconnected from the comforts that you have inevitably grown so dependent on. But it only took my first interaction with a Cuban to ease my discomfort. We pretty much all look the same, dress the same, and act the same. I found that we had similar accents, slicing the consonants out of common words, finding comfort and charm in a familial lingo of broken Spanish. Everyone's just enjoying their existence and trying to stay ahead of the game. Shooting on film had never been so rewarding.
Like film photography, Cuba is still analog in many ways. The cars are antiquated, the Internet barely exists, landlines are very much still in use, and people are actually socializing in real-time. Most importantly, though, the damning sense of expediency hasn’t defiled the pleasantries of quotidian life yet. Shooting in a medium that disrupts this digital era of right-now was a meditative experience and one that allowed me to savor the photographs more than I could any digital image. Having to wait several weeks before I could get my hands on those photos required patience, but it was also enchanting.
When we arrived in Havana, we inquired about a good restaurant that had live music nearby. They provided us with a few options off the top of their head. Without a phone book, Google, or an address, they proceeded to tell us to just show up and try to get lucky with a table. The directions were, “Take a right out of the hotel, another right two blocks away, walk for like ten minutes, and after the intersection it’s on that block.” Surprisingly, we made out just fine. There was no room for us on a busy night, but we walked another block into a different restaurant that was delightful and had live music as well. I’ve come to find that life’s kind of better that way. Leaving things up to chance opens us up to more humbling experiences and grounds us in reality. Film’s a lot like that. You can perfectly frame and plan a shot, but you really never know what’s going to happen in the darkroom, making every shot a mystery and every beautifully developed frame a kind of serendipitous marvel.
Do you ever notice how our phones are teeming with slightly different versions of the same shot? That’s us, trying to get the perfect photograph, not knowing that we could have got it just right the first time had we taken the time to properly frame and expose it. Shooting on film is about patience and craft. The journey from regularly blowing out your film to successfully bracketing a shot on an overcast day is an arduous and enriching one. While in Cuba, I stopped for photographs often. I stopped at the top of Hemingway’s writing tower at his home. I stopped on the way to dinner to goggle at the vintage cars. I stopped before I took my first sip from my Daiquirí at the very bar Hemingway sat. I stopped to read the vintage Communist propaganda painted onto building facades. It slowed down our walks, but these things don’t exist for our photos. They’re meant to dazzle us. Shooting on film requires you to allow for it to happen. We walked down to El Malecón and arrived as the sun was setting. People from all walks of life sat along the pier and watched the cars go by. Lovers dazzled onlookers embracing one another with crimson-colored skin tinted by the magic of the sun. A band of musicians with their trumpets and saxophones played classic Cuban salsa tunes for a few pesos to set the mood for the night. The stars faded into the blue sky as the sun disappeared behind the horizon. Looking at those photos now, it’s hard to believe that there is no filter on them from how much the sun drenched everything in orange.
I picked up my pictures this week and looking down at my fresh prints, I couldn’t help but be overcome with excitement and profound appreciation. There is magic in film like the magic that exists in Havana. That magic is reality, humanity. There is something very real happening inside of your camera when you open your shutter. You’re creating a chemical reaction for the tiny crystals suspended in gelatin to turn into a tangible memory. And sometimes that reality is not controllable, but that’s okay. You’re forced to rid yourself of this over manipulation we’ve grown so accustomed to. Our social media profiles are perfectly curated, photos incessantly edited, and our adventures are planned out through extensive research on what the best options are. Film’s got no room for that. No matter how well you know how to use your light meter, choose the right f-stop, or bracket your shots, the developed image will always be a surprise. And you’re not only honing your craft with every clack of the shutter, but you’re also living in the present for real undiluted experiences. I remember when life was like that. And I realize now that the reasons we look back on our childhoods and smile is because they were real.