On Travel and Realistic Expectations

I had very high hopes for Havana. I’ve always wanted to photograph this city, drawn to its romanticized streets popularized by a number of street photographers and documentarians who have photographed it before me. Still, it was something that needed to be done. For Canadians, Cuba is viewed as a tourist destination not much different than the packaged resort vacations common in places like Mexico or the Dominican Republic. For this trip, we would bypass the packaged resort experience in exchange for a more local one. 

The purpose of the trip was simple: go to Havana and shoot as much as humanly possible in seven days. The end result would hopefully be a mini-Cuba project. Each day followed a similar routine; out the door of the guesthouse at 7:45am and usually not returning until after 8pm. We tried to mostly shoot early in the mornings and late afternoon to maximize our exposure to nice lighting, but really we shot throughout the day with periodic rests for food, coffee, or to take in a tourist site. 

I shot nearly 36 rolls of film that week with my Hasselblad XPan – just shy of 720 photographs.

I’m notorious for not being a big fan of my own work. I’m overly critical of photography in general because I don’t think there is enough truly great photography out there. I put a lot of pressure on myself to produce stuff that I am proud of. In street photography, that pressure is amplified because I don’t feel as though I’m very good at it compared with many of my peers. It’s the one genre of photography that I want to get better at, but don’t feel as though much progress has been made over the last several years. 

So what does this have to do with my images from Havana? Well, everything. When I initially got home and went through my images, I felt as though I failed miserably with my photography and I wanted to explore the reasons why I felt this way. 

High Expectations 

I have unrealistic expectations of my work. I felt as though I could go to Havana for a week, snap a few photos and walk out of there seven days later with a bunch of Alex Webbs and call it a day. You can imagine my disappointment when my Alex Webbs turned out to be more like Neil Tas. The horror. 

There’s a Buddhist teaching that tells us that having unreasonably high expectations can only lead to disappointment. This was definitely the case with my experience in Cuba. It took a couple of months of digesting the images to come to the realization that they weren’t that bad. The lessons here are 1) you can’t be a Neil Ta and expect Alex Webb-type images, 2) you should measure success by progress and you shouldn’t expect to jump several levels of skill in a short period of time and 3) great photography is damn hard. Projects can take years or even decades to complete. Expecting a solid project in only seven days is laughable if you think about it. 

Forgetting to Have Fun 

I had a lot of my friends ask me how I enjoyed my time in Cuba. I think they were surprised to hear my reaction; I was sort of indifferent to the experience. This comes as a bit of a shock because I consider myself a pretty seasoned traveller who loves to explore other places and cultures. I was so pre-occupied with making images there that I didn’t focus enough on being present, to simply enjoy the time with my friends. 

Another consideration most would find trivial would be the food. I view food as something intertwined with culture. There’s no better way of experiencing a culture than through its food. This is my belief. The lack of truly enjoyable meals really put a damper on my overall mood while I was there. Even the highly rated restaurants in the city were pretty mediocre by Toronto standards (yes, we are spoiled here).

Looking back on it, I treated this more like a work assignment and less like a project shot for the fun of it. It’s a bit of a double edged sword as that pressure can motivate you to be more active shooting, but it can also significantly reduce the fun factor. 

Not Shooting for a Project 

It’s extremely challenging to shoot a consistent theme when you’re aimlessly roaming the streets taking snaps of anything and everything that grabs your attention. There’s a million random moments on the streets of Havana happening, but that results in a million random photos as well.
One of the huge issues I had with my own work was the lack of consistency in theme and a disconnect I felt with the subjects. Perhaps it wasn’t that surprising though, as my main goal for the week was to focus on framing multiple subjects with minimal overlap. There was little consideration made to the content of the image.

Unsurprisingly, I felt like the images lacked substance. Most of my favorite images came from one area that was shot at the same time of day on back-to-back afternoons. Had I discovered this earlier on, I would have dedicated my time to documenting this area of Havana rather than to shoot without a project in mind. 

Shooting in Film 

At the end of March I made the commitment to shoot my non-work material with one camera for a year. The Hasselblad XPan (a film camera that takes panoramic images) would be my walk-around camera for this period. I only started using film cameras on a limited basis about five years ago, so the transition to this camera was huge (it still is). 

There were a bunch of scenes we stumbled upon that I wish I could have shot digitally. Panoramic cameras can be difficult to compose, especially when you’re wanting to layer subjects in frame. They’re slower to use in a lot of ways (it’s a manual focus rangefinder) and less nimble. They require you to stop for a couple of minutes to reload your film when you’ve run out. 

Shooting film for me is definitely more difficult. Though I am glad I shot Havana on film with this camera, I can’t help but feel like I would have gotten better images in certain situations with a digital camera. That’s a fact I need to live with. I would likely shoot digital only if I were to go back.

The Chino Factor 

I don’t expect most of the readers to relate to this final point, but it definitely played a role in feeling disconnected with the Cuban people. My two friends who joined me in Havana happen to be Chinese-Canadian also. Understandably, we would stick out like sore thumbs as we roamed the streets. The novelty of people yelling “Chino!” from a distance or refusing to believe we were Canadian or giving us slanty-eyed gestures really wore me down over a week. 

I don’t believe it was their intention to make us feel uncomfortable or to act racist, but we could barely walk a block without someone engaging us in some sort of mildly racist banter. We tried to be as friendly as possible at all times, but the unwanted attention got old quite quickly. I understand that we are visitors in their home and that I need to be sensitive of the societal differences. However, being someone of Chinese descent in Havana was much more challenging than anticipated. 

If I’m honest with myself, I can’t really say that I had an awesome time in Cuba. I can’t say that the Cuban people are so amazingly friendly and warm (a lot of them were, but many of them made me feel a bit like a zoo animal). I can’t really say I’m 100% satisfied with the images I made there. What I can say is that I shot to my level of competency and it resulted in some memorable images. I can say that for only seven days, I produced some good work that I should be proud of. Would I go back there? Hells yes! If and when I go back, I will definitely be more focused on capturing one small sliver of Cuban culture rather than trying to capture all of it at random. 

Notes: You can see more of my Cuba images on Instagram (@iambidong) or my Tumblr blog. For anyone looking to stay with a local host in Havana, I highly recommend Licet and Pepe. They were great hosts and have a nice apartment in a neighbourhood within close proximity to the Malecon and very scenic local streets.

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