The following is a post I made to the Flickr group Travel Photography in a discussion about the best country for street photography. One of the members of the group raised the question of when you seek permission to take a stranger’s photograph. Clicking on the thumbnail pictures will take you to larger versions in my Flickr stream.
The permission thing is tricky. Often, if you ask beforehand, people pose rigidly, and it’s difficult to get a natural looking shot. On the other hand, just walking up and snapping a photo of someone can be very rude, and can get you in trouble.
I vary my strategy depending on the culture and situation. If people are engaged in an activity, and if I speak the language, I may ask permission, but tell them to continue doing what they’re doing. They act stiff at first, but I keep shooting, and after a while they ignore me. That’s the strategy I used for this shot of men playing checkers on a street in Havana, Cuba:
If people are in a public place doing what they are normally doing, I sometimes don’t ask permission, but make my presence known, and refrain from shooting if anyone clearly objects. That’s what I did for this shot in Havana of men in a park arguing about baseball. I wasn’t about to interrupt their heated argument to ask permission, but I didn’t hide the fact that I was taking pictures.
If people are at a bit of a distance and not clearly recognizable, I have no problem sneaking a picture with a long lens as in this shot of construction workers in Havana:
If people are engaged in a fun event like a festival, I have no problem shooting fairly close shots with a long lens and not asking permission, as in this shot at Toronto’s Caribana festival:
Sometimes I’ll simply ask people to pose and tell them what to do. If they’re engaged in an activity, and not just standing rigidly, it can work, as in this shot of a grape seller in Guatemala:
If you don’t speak the language, or if you’re at a bit of a distance and there’s noise, “permission” can simply be raising your camera part way, pointing to it, and smiling at the person. If you get a nod, or at least the person doesn’t raise their hand to object, you have permission. That’s how I got this picture of a holy man in India a number of years ago:
I was shooting film then, but today you have an advantage. Showing off the picture to your subject on the LCD screen can often invite further pictures, and even shots of others around who see it!
When I planned my trip to Cuba, I had very little idea what to expect as to what it’s like doing photography in Cuba. I posted to a couple of Flickr groups asking about photographing in Cuba, and received a few tips and suggestions, but still didn’t really know what to expect. This posting attempts to address some of the questions I had.
First of all, despite its authoritarian style of government, I never had any problem from officials as a foreigner taking pictures. The only time it was ever an issue is when I first arrived at the airport and they scanned my carry-on luggage after I arrived — a new experience. Seeing my camera and collection of lenses and accessories, the people at the scanner asked if I was a “periodista” (journalist). I replied that I was not and that the camera was for personal use. They accepted my explanation with no further issue. Cuba, like many countries, requires that journalists obtain a special visa, so entering with just a tourist card would have been a problem.
Other than that, I had no problems from authorities whatsoever. This contrasts with trips to the United States where I have been hassled, and it seems that to some people photographers are terrorists, pedophiles or worse. And Britain apparently is even worse than the U.S. for official harassment of photographers. I’m not naive, and in the unlikely event that I encountered mass demonstrations in Cuba and photographed them, I would likely encounter problems. But generally, Cuba is much more photo friendly than many other destinations.
I find that in many countries there’s an expectation that foreigners always have cameras and are always taking pictures. This was certainly the case in Cuba, and it can work in your favour as a photographer. At home, people sometimes wonder why you are taking pictures. In places like Cuba, it’s just assumed that that’s what foreigners do.
I also wondered about the safety of walking around with a camera. Here again, I felt much safer than in many other countries of Latin America. You do hear of occasional cases of snatch and grab attacks on tourists in Old Havana, but I never saw anything to suggest concern. I tend to carry the camera with the strap around my neck and shoulder, and with at least one hand on it, and I constantly scan my surroundings for people who might be problems. I saw many tourists carrying their cameras with a lot less care and attention, and though I don’t recommend that, I never saw problems.
Travelling in general, the most dangerous situations are usually when you are completely alone with your attacker, or when you are in a dense crowd (such as on a crowded bus or train) allowing someone to steal without your knowledge. Rarely in Cuba was I in either situation. There are always people around (and very often police), and I didn’t take the city buses. Thieves are less likely to strike when there’s a good mix of people around, but not so many that they can get away undetected or slip into a crowd.
I usually kept my camera in my bag when I was walking at night, but I never felt threatened carrying it during the day, even in some fairly run-down parts of Havana. There are two big advantages to carrying your camera in the open. First, it’s ready when you need it, and you don’t need to fuss around and possibly lose a shot. Secondly, the camera itself attracts attention of people, who will often ask to pose. Several times people saw my camera and suggested shots to me — sometimes because they wanted money, and sometimes not.
As for photographing people, I would say that four different scenarios come into play.
1. Professional tourist models
In tourist areas like Old Havana and Trinidad, there are some Cubans who make a living by posing for pictures for tourists. If you look at Flickr’s Cuban groups, you’ll often see the same human subjects over and over. These are generally people who pose for $1 CUC or less. One old guy in Trinidad even sits on a donkey that has an English sign on its forehead saying: “For rent. Photo 50c”.
Some of these models are great. A favourite of mine (and many other photographers) is Graciela, an old woman in Old Havana with just two loose front teeth, who poses with a big cigar. José Manuel Soto Flores was another colourful character in Old Havana. He had an album of pictures of himself, and had even been in guidebooks. He carried special ID that showed he was allowed to carry out this modeling and be paid in hard currency, and many of the other tourist models had the same credentials.
Some of the models were more contrived, decked out in colourful costumes. Some even had pets such as dogs and cats dressed up with them. I engaged some, with mixed results.
Some were pretty insistent that you only got one frame for your $1. Others let you take several shots. I generally got better results when I chatted with them for a while first, and of course I had to move some into better light.
2. Opportunistic tourist models
These people are not pros, but their aim in posing for you is to get a little hard currency. Sometimes they initiated the exchange with me, asking if I would like to photograph them or their friend. Sometimes, I first noticed them, and asked them to pose. They agreed on condition of payment. Whether you pay or not and how much you pay in these situations is always a judgment call. Some people raise moral issues about photographers encouraging dependence of these people. Generally though, I didn’t mind paying a bit if I got some decent shots from it. Some people were so delighted to earn a bit of money that they were happy to let me keep shooting them after I’d paid them. Sometimes though, people who asked to be photographed for money didn’t interest me, and I turned them down.
3. Photos for photos’ sake
Very often I had encounters with people and took their pictures without money ever being part of the equation. Often these were the most satisfying encounters, as I was able to chat with the people first and develop a bit of a bond. Very often they were delighted simply to see their images on the LCD screen. Usually, these were encounters that I initiated. I sometimes just walked up to people or walked into a shop and asked if I could photograph them doing whatever they were doing. Very often, people agreed. In one shoe repair shop, I photographed the two men working, and then one of them asked to pose with his wife. I promised to mail them copies of the pictures, but that was an offer on my part and not a condition for being photographed. Sometimes people agreed to let me photograph them, even though they didn’t seem enthusiastic. Only rarely did I get an outright rejection.
4. Candid photos
These are photos I took of people in the street without their permission. There are moral issues here, but I feel that generally if you don’t invade someone’s privacy, and they’re just doing something normal on the street, they are fair game. Still, I use some circumspection with these shots. It’s one thing if people are incidental to a street scene and are part of a larger picture. It’s a bit invasive though to pull out a long lens and do a close-up of their face without their knowledge or permission. You often get a more interesting picture if the person isn’t aware of the camera. Sometimes, I would smile and wave to a person after taking a shot of them, to see what kind of reaction I got. In most cases, people would see me with the camera taking general scenes of the street and not really care if they were in the frame or not.
While people are often the most interesting subjects, Cuba has numerous other fascinating subjects, not the least its old classic cars and crumbling old buildings. The American cars of the late 1940s and 1950s are very photogenic with their curves and art deco styling. The point of view and lighting for such shots is always important. For cars, low and close seems to work best.
The strong tropical sunlight is always a challenge. I found that in Cuba I often got my best shots very early or late in the day when the sun was low. The light was often very beautiful at these times, and the pastel colours of the buildings intensified it. In the middle of the day, it was essential to pay attention to light and shadows. With buildings of multi stories in Havana, it was often very easy to find areas of open shade for excellent lighting even in the middle of the day. Trinidad and Viñales had a lot more one-storey buildings, making it more of a challenge. I almost always carried my SB-900 flash with me, and very often when I shot in open sun, I would use a fill flash. This is essential in bright sun when there are strong shadows. I brought my tripod with me, but was less likely to walk around with it. I still managed to get some good sets for HDR photography with hand holding the camera and shooting quick frames in burst mode.
In a two-week trip to just three places, I feel I only scratched the surface of Cuba’s photographic potential. I didn’t try any locations that would have required official permission. And I didn’t try any more extensive shoots of models or other people requiring complex lighting arrangements beyond one flash. There’s a lot more for another trip, and I’m eager to return to Cuba with my camera again.
José Manuel Soto Flores is a professional tourist model in Old Havana. He carries government-issued ID that lets him engage in this business.
These two guys asked for a little change after I took their picture, but they certainly weren’t professional models, and weren’t likely used to being photographed.
In this candid picture of men arguing over baseball in Havana’s Central Park, it would have been out of the question to ask permission first and still have people looking natural. Still, it was obvious to them that I was photographing, and only one man seemed to mind (he covered his face with his hand). I just kept shooting, and tried to avoid getting the man who didn’t want to be photographed. By the time I fired this shot, they seemed oblivious to the fact that I was there, and were completely engrossed in their argument.
Although I took this shot later in the day, and the sky was partially overcast, a fill flash was absolutely necessary. Without it, there would be no detail on the man’s dark face.
I’ve now been back from Cuba for a couple weeks and have had a bit of time to reflect on what I saw in this unique and fascinating country.
Cuba is like nowhere else I’ve been. I briefly visited Bulgaria and Yugoslavia during the Soviet era, but Cuba in 2011 bears little resemblance to Communist eastern Europe. It is, much more, a Latin American country with its own brand of revolutionary politics superimposed. That too is changing — as Cubans I talked to all emphasized, Cuba is in a period of transition.
In my undergraduate university studies, I concentrated on Latin American politics and history. But my focus was always on Mexico and Central America. Cuba was a country whose history and politics I only covered superficially. And Cuba is very different from its mainland neighbours.
Two factors immediately make Cuba very different from the other Latin American countries I’m familiar with: it has no indigenous population to speak of, and it did not gain independence from Spain at the time of other Latin American countries. Rather, Cuba is largely mixed race African-European, though there’s a surprising number of people who seem to be of pure European or African ancestry. The African influence has had a notable impact on Cuba’s music and art. And Cuba has not had the experience of Mestizaje — the mixing of European and aboriginal cultures — that is at the heart of the culture in Mexico and Central America.
I had several opportunities to chat with Cubans about the transition occurring today. They speak in hushed voices, and there is a certain amount of fear associated with expressing political opinions, but they did seem to speak fairly freely.
The general sense is that change is happening and needs to happen, but there’s some anxiety about what the changes will be. Since the so-called “Special Period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a gradual move to allow more and more private enterprise. Everyone I talked to saw this as a good thing, and something necessary. There’s a general feeling that the revolution is 52 years old, and its ideas have become stale and has led to Cuba’s stagnation.
The problem now is the dual economy of state-controlled low salaries in moneda nacional and private enterprise operating in convertible pesos. It’s causing a great misallocation of resources, and is unsustainable.
Since the Special Period, Cuba has relied more and more on tourism to bring in the needed hard currency. But this has contributed to the distortion. Now, a hotel chambermaid or a prosititute earns far more in a day in hard currency than a doctor, teacher or engineer earns in weeks in moneda nacional. Stores selling in moneda nacional have empty shelves and line-ups for rationed goods. Stores selling in hard currency have imported products on their shelves.
Two of the people I met are good examples. My guide on a hike in Viñales had been a high school teacher, but that’s a job that pays a government wage in moneda nacional. With survival so difficult, he became a tourist guide instead so that at least he makes some tips in convertible pesos.
The casa particular (private home) I stayed at in Viñales is another example. The owner, Dr. Luis Luis, studied for years to become a doctor, and travelled to serve Cuba during the Nicaraguan Contra war and later in Guyana. He is skilled in trauma treatment, anesthesiology, and other emergency medicine. He now teaches medicine. But his medical salary is meagre and in moneda nacionale. By contrast, the family pays its bills with the hard-currency paying tourists who stay at the home. Although owners of casas particulares must pay high taxes to be allowed to operate, a single tourist in a few nights brings in more income than a doctor’s salary.
State-run restaurants have a reputation for surly, bored staff and overcooked inspid food. Small private restaurants called “paladares” have sprung up to offer good food and meet the need of the tourist industry. These changes have been slow to come about, but the general feeling is that Raul Castro has been less dogmatic than his older brother about allowing change to come.
Which brings up an issue I only discussed very carefully with Cubans — Fidel is probably mortal, and unless he has a miraculous improvement in health, his days are probably numbered. So what shape will Cuba take when Fidel departs?
One of the ironies of the Cold War is that Fidel’s longevity as leader can only be thanks to the Americans. For a country that has made such great pretense of wanted to be rid of Fidel and to end Communism in Cuba, America has been the single greatest factor in keeping Fidel in power for more than half a century. The United States has seen 10 presidents since Castro came to power in 1959. There have been various attempts by the Americans to get the Mob to assassinate the Cuban leader, or even to give him substances to make his beard fall out. And yet, he has hung on until only his health led him to relinquish power to his younger brother.
The U.S. embargo against Cuba has been Castro’s best friend. Around Havana today, billboards decry the social costs to Cuba of “el bloqueo.” Typically they point to the cost of several hours of the embargo in terms of medical services or educational supplies for children. The reality is, though, that for years the embargo has served as a convenient excuse for Cuba’s economic difficulties. True, there have been real economic costs to the Cuban economy as a result of the embargo, but for the Castro regime, the embargo has served as a convenient excuse to cover the failings of socialist economics. If not for the external enemy of the U.S. imperialists and their embargo, the Cuban people would have turned against Castro long ago. At the same time, American political isolation of Cuba has left the Castro regime to operate in a giant incubator — free from the kind of ideas that would be brought to Cuba if there were a more free exchange between the two countries. Opponents of the regime have been allowed to leave, as during the Mariel boatlift of 1980, with the result that Castro’s enemies are kept at a safe distance in Miami.
But what will come of Cuba when Fidel dies? Will Raul hang onto power, and gradually reform the system. Or will the be an overwhelming and uncontrollable pressure for rapid change both from inside and out?
One force that I think will play a much stronger role in Cuba in coming years is the Evangelical churches. Evangelicals are a political force in Latin America, nowhere so much as in Guatemala, but in other countries too they are a political threat to the Catholic Church and to secular political forces. In Cuba, the Catholic Church has been weakened by years of revolutionary socialisim, and although many Cubans are Catholics, there is a power vaccuum that Evangelicals will be quick to exploit when Fidel goes.
In geo-political terms, the counterproductive American policies towards Cuba have created an enormous political opening for the Chinese. Chinese presence is noticeable, especially in many of the newer vehicles seen in Cuba. The new buses are all Chinese built. There are Chinese cars. At one point during my trip from Trinidad to Havana, our bus and other traffic in our direction had to pull over to allow an almost endless convoy to pass. The convoy, escorted by police and military, contained dozens and dozens of brand new Chinese-built construction trucks obviously just being delivered. Chinese influence in Cuba is only increasing, and one wonders for the Americans about the wisdom of their policies that are switching a former Soviet satellite on their doorstep for a Chinese one.
It’s hard, of course, to get a clear view in a crystal ball in a short two-week trip to three locations in Cuba, and a few conversations with Cubans. And so, I’ll stop predicting, and instead close with a few more comments about Cuba as a country to visit.
I’m glad I went, and I certainly would go back. Despite the hardship for Cubans, for a visitor it is fascinating to see a country that has not been spoiled by global homogenization and McDonaldsization. It’s a beautiful country with an amazing culture, incredible unspoiled colonial and post-colonial architecture, and friendly people.
It was recommended to me before I went that I be cautious about contacts initiated by Cubans, and that I would get more from contacts I initiated myself. This is certainly true, and in this I am lucky to have a fairly good command of Spanish. Usually when Cubans approached me, they had some agenda whether to try to sell me something, or ask me for something. It was rarely ever too much of a problem, though walking in some areas it could get tiresome to keep saying “no gracias” to offers of cheap cigars or a taxi. Occasionally people came up with various stories as a pretext to ask me for money, and sometimes I got a quick cold shoulder when I refused.
On the other hand, when I initiated contact, I usually found Cubans friendly and willing to talk. Often they were curious about where I came from, and often the conversation was fairly superficial, but they were usually happy to talk if I asked them about their old cars, their business or anything else. For the most part, they seemed like good natured people with a sense of humour, and I never detected that the Cuban people were especially miserable, despite their challenging lives.
Cuba is not as cheap a country to visit as other Latin American countries because of the two-currency system and the artificial state pricing. For many things, such as museums, foreigners are expected to pay in convertible pesos what Cubans pay in national pesos, meaning foreigners pay 24 times as much. Given the difference in our salaries, this isn’t unreasonable, but it does make Cuba a more expensive destination than countries where tourists and locals pay the same price. Of course, Cuba offers many inexpensive package holidays in resorts, but to really see the country, you’ll spend more. Staying in casas particulares reduces the cost, but this is not like other Latin American countries where a reasonably comfortable hotel can cost $10 – $30 depending on the country.
Still, in terms of travel experience, Cuba offers something unique that you won’t find anywhere else. Its political isolation has preserved its unique culture. And its Afro-Latin culture is a fascinating one, mixed with influences from colonial Spain and its long experiment with revolutionary socialism.
The time to visit Cuba is now — before it changes to an uncertain future.