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A Photographer’s Experience in Havana: Jorge Quinteros

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“Photography in Cuba: It’s Not Easy,” reads a 2015 New York Times headline. New York-based photographer Jorge Quinteros respectively disagrees. Quinteros is one of many international photographers who’ve traveled to Cuba, and photos from his recent trip capture authentic, daily life in Havana.

We talked to Quinteros about his visit to Cuba and his experiences photographing the people of Havana.

What inspired you to travel to Cuba?

In a big way, other photographers inspired me to visit Cuba. I think a lot of photographers are doing a great job highlighting Cuba’s rich culture—especially the people that make up the fabric of the country. The purpose of my trip was to do just that. Beyond taking photos, I wanted to tell a story about each local I met along the way, and to give a voice to those who may have felt they didn’t have one to begin with.

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How did you plan your itinerary?

I did a lot of research. There were specific places I wanted to visit, like the Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym. I spent a lot of time on Google Maps calculating how long it would take to get from place to place. I was only there for four days, so I wanted to take advantage of every moment. My advice is to plan ahead to schedule the places you definitely want to photograph, but also save time for unexpected experiences to unfold.

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As a lifestyle photographer, how were you received by the Cuban people?

The Cubans I met were some of the most welcoming people I have ever encountered. I speak Spanish, so I had an advantage in terms of making deeper connections with the locals. Still, you’d be surprised how much a person opens up when you show a genuine willingness to learn about their lives. The conversations I had revolved around everyday life, politics, plans for the future—basically the same topics discussed around the world. In Havana, the locals really know their neighbors—they know how they take their coffee or which brand of cigar they prefer—so they’re more open to go beyond surface-level conversations. By the time we got down to me taking their portrait, not one person objected—everybody I talked to was eager to have their picture taken.

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How did you balance taking quintessential shots of Cuba and seeking out individual people for portraits that communicate the true character of the Cuban people?

At times, it was difficult to resist documenting the picturesque side of Cuba. We’ve all seen the colonial architecture, the chaotic street scenes, the classic cars from the ’50s and sunsets along El Malecón. For me, though, the most remarkable part of my trip was hanging out in a single city block for the entire day. There, I learned more from speaking with the locals vs. spending a day commuting from landmark to landmark, which didn’t necessarily reveal anything new about Cuba that I didn’t know already.

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Would you say you needed to go “off the beaten path” to connect with locals?

Cuba, especially Havana, is hectic. There were some situations where I spotted a local I would have been interested in speaking with, but the street was just so busy and I was cognizant of the fact that, in this setting, people might not be inclined to stop for a chat. Because of logistics, I was led to more off the beaten path locations where I could more easily seek out interesting people. For example, I wanted to learn what Cuban bicitaxi (rickshaw) operators thought of their highly competitive field of work, or what a market vendor had to say about the importance of knowing where their produce comes from.

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Is there a go-to spot in Havana that all photographers need to visit?

Absolutely! The first is El Malecón. While everybody will tell you to shoot there at sunset, I would challenge any photographer to go beyond the typical postcard-worthy photos. Talk to and connect with the locals that hang out there instead, and capture a more compelling story. The second place I highly recommend for photographers is Calle Obispo—a main shopping thoroughfare. It’s gradually being taken over by souvenir shops, but it’s still a go-to for beautiful cobbled streets and colonial architecture—and good food and bars, too. It’s a great location for scoping out street scenes, which best highlight the reality of Havana—a city where life is lived out in the street. It’s another area to connect with the locals, which will help photographers find a narrative that is sure to be far more compelling than another shot of architecture or food.

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In photographing Cuba, does any particular experience stand out from the rest?

Without a doubt, my favorite encounter in Cuba was at the Central Havana Campoamor Theatre. Established in the ’20s, it was the center of music and performing arts in Havana until it closed in 1965, six years after Fidel Castro came to power. Despite the closure, Reinaldo, a former employee, stayed behind with his dog, plants and memories, and remains living there today. From the outside, you get a vague idea of how magnificent the place once was. I happened to strike up a conversation with a bicitaxi driver outside who introduced me to Reinaldo, who in turn was happy to tell his story and give us a tour of the place. The entire encounter was completely unplanned and unexpected, which made it even more memorable.

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Your trip was in partnership with Moment Lenses, and all your photos were taken on an iPhone 6. Do you recommend this setup vs. bulkier camera equipment?

I recommend any setup that will allow a photographer to deliver their best work. My assignment was to strictly use the iPhone in conjunction with Moment Lenses. For me, it was liberating because it was extremely easy to move around (think: lots of walking, crowded streets, hopping in and out of taxis) and, maybe even more importantly, I didn’t draw attention to myself as a photographer. I did carry my Sony A7II with a 35mm f/2.8 lens, which I used sparingly, but I mostly used my iPhone and Moments Lenses combination because it allowed me to focus more on the people I was connecting with, and less on the technical aspects of photography.

Any advice for photographers visiting Cuba?

Stay curious. For me, so many of the experiences I had would have never been possible without my innate curiosity about how remarkable and idiosyncratic other people are. I’ve always been an inquisitive person. I learned a lot from Anthony Bourdain, actually, and I refer back to him constantly because he’s the antithesis of a typical travel show television personality. He really focuses on the people instead of the landmarks we’ve seen time and time again. That was the purpose of my visit to Cuba, and I would encourage any photographer planning to travel to Cuba to dig deeper and walk away from the experience with more than just postcard-worthy shots.

Jorge Quinteros is a New York-based photographer. For more of his Cuba photography, visit his blog or read his The Faces of Cuba piece on Moment Lens.

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