Street Photography At Its Finest: An Exploration of Havana
To those that use photography to augment and tell stories in a compelling way, Havana is a must visit.
Not only does the city contain an abundance of colours, its streets are lined with unique buildings and the oft historical landmark. Add to this the heavy stylisation brought about by the harsh light, and you'll get a city that begets photos and videos of cinematic quality. And that's before we even get to the excellent rum that Cuba is known for, the iconic Havana Club.
For ordinary tourists, visiting the city is a dream in and of itself; but for the photographer, it is equivalent to striking gold. This is all for one simple reason - Havana is so full of colour and life, and its people possess a seemingly limitless amount of friendliness and willingness to engage with foreigners.
From Cuban housewives watching soap operas on sofas sporting leopard-prints to youths blasting music on boomboxes, it's a pretty big understatement to simply describe the streets of Havana as 'lively'. Walk around the city with a camera and you'll know what we mean.
Trying to find the location of Havana on a map is pretty easy as it is the capital of Cuba, and sits just off the coast of Florida. Since it is part of the Carribean, photographers should take note that Havana's weather alternates between blistering heat and incessant showers. Hence, if you're heading to the island for photographs, plan accordingly and bring the right equipment.
La Habana Vieja or Old Havana
Havana first started out as a small Spanish trading post but soon quickly became the colonial power's centre of commerce in the Americas as a result of transatlantic commerce. Indeed, many ships operating in the Americas would first dock in the Cuban city before continuing their onward journey to Europe, often accompanied by Spanish escorts. This escort 'service' was essential because of the high value (and volume) of trade passing through the two continents, as ships were laden with gold, wool, leather, and dye - all highly prized commodities in Europe.
By 1592, even the Spanish naval presence was insufficient to deter marauding pirates, prompting the Crown to build two fortifications for the purpose of augmenting the city's defences. While Havana would be open for business in the day, the twin forts of San Salvador de la Punta and Castillo del Morro guarded the Bay of Havana as the ships docked in the harbour. Documents from the time also describe the city's defenders linking a chain between the two forts (across the mouth of the bay) to prevent any attacks from pirate ships at night.
However, as the power of its Spanish patron steadily waned, Havana changed hands, first (temporarily) to the British, then later to the United States. However, the country flourished in the intervening period, acting as a centre of culture, with influences from socities that spanned the American continent.
Following a history of Spanish dominance, it's unsurprising that many of the buildings and structures in Old Havana have Canarian and Iberian influences. From the central square of Plaza de Armas and San Francisco, there are ample opportunities for photography as the area’s well preserved buildings and architecture are a sight to behold. Most of the images and photos you see of Cuba might very well come from the area as the entirety of La Habana Vieja is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The imposing disposition of these two edifices pictured above still remain to this day, and although though they have been technologically obsolete for quite some time, the twin forts still occupy a place of importance in the minds of many Cubans.
Due to its prominence, La Habana Vieja is also where many buskers and hawkers congregate as the area is a tourist hotspot. However, this doesn't mean that you should avoid the place as the bustle does result in a lively atmosphere that is brimming with Cuban and Spanish Culture.
Apart from the area's Baroque-style churches and Spanish-influenced restaurants, the Cuban love for music, dancing and drinking is very much alive. For example, the famous bar where Ernest Hemingway would supposedly indulge in (probably too many) daiquiris, Floridita, is found in the heart of the district.
No matter how much time you have in Havana, La Habana Vieja is a must-visit.
Downtown Havana represents the 'modern' part of the city as it has been shaped by the Communist Revolution and hence features less colonial influences. The city's Chinatown district, Barrio Chino, is also located in Centro Habana. At its entrance, a large 'Chinatown Gate' or paifang welcomes visitors even though there are now no more (or very little) Chinese Cubans left in the city. Yet, the district still remains an important point of congregation for the city's inhabitants, in part due to the number of bus lines that call there.
In essence, the large amount of people who live in Centro Habana makes the area ripe with opportunities for photographers regardless of when you find yourself walking around. Many of the iconic pictures of Havana find their origins here.
Due to its density (it is the smallest neighbourhood by size but largest by population), Centro Habana's buildings are tightly packed with one another and have significantly less stand-out architectural beauties. Instead, you'll find a hodgepodge of residences, small businesses, open courtyards and even parking spaces for rickshaws. Yet, these features all sit beside art deco columns, winding drains and beautifully decorated balconies. Indeed, in Centro Habana, you'll never know what you'll find when you turn the corner.
Now for the exciting bit: A walk through Centro Habana would allow one to experience what he/she probably came to Havana for - the extremely photogenic 'ruins' of the city. Amongst potholed roads and hastily sketched murals, there is no doubt that Centro Habana embraces its gritty character. We'll let the photos you've seen do the talking.
Nevertheless, Centro Habana also houses many of the city's architectural icons, especially the tourist hotels around Parque Central and the famed El Capitolio. Hence, it is this uncanny coexistence of the city's decaying buildings with its masterpieces which truly excites photographers, and why we're enraptured by its beauty.
Furthermore, Centro Habana's density also complements the harsh lighting that the city is known for, as light from the harsh Caribbean sun filters in and amongst unevenly tall (and wide) buildings.
This is, therefore, an amazing opportunity to use shadows to accentuate certain objects, people or ideas in your photographs. Play around with these themes, especially vis-a-vis Cuba's politically tenuous reputation as the ability to find meaning in everyday shots juxtaposed to revolutionary murals is definitely there. Similarly, take advantage of Golden Hour to capture a refreshing perspective of the city.
Much like Centro Habana, Vedado is also brimming with activity as it is the city's central 'business' district, and the fact that many embassies are located here. The neighbourhood also houses many of the city's iconic institutions, from the famed modernist ice-cream parlour Coppelia and grand cinema Yara to the expansive and epochal Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Plaza.
Apart from this, many consider the district to be inhabited by richer Cubans as evidenced by the low-rise bungalows and wide boulevards that are found in the area. Some houses (read: mansions) even have armed guards, especially those in and around Avenida de los Presidentes. However, most of the mansions here also suffer the same fate of disrepair just like the buildings in other parts of the city.
Nevertheless, Vedado has countless cafes catering to tourists looking for a mid-day pick me up or simply just to shelter themselves from the Caribbean heat. Seek these out and you shouldn't be disappointed with what you find - be it Cuban coffee, whisky or cigars.
Visiting Vedado is all about gaining a new perspective of Havana's character beyond the density of the city center. To this end you'll oftentimes be able to find houses and buildings with different architectural inspirations sitting next to each other, which always makes for a good photo opportunity. Many of our most treasured pictures of Havana are of these gems in Vedado.
Taking a side-trip to the University of Havana should also be worthwhile especially since its students are eager to engage with tourists and give their perspective on what it's like to study in Havana. Additionally, many of Cuba's leaders have been educated here, including Fidel Castro who was a student at the University's Faculty of Law.
Vedado also boasts 'ownership' over a majority of the length of the Malécon - one of the biggest meeting and recreational areas of the city where Cubans come to chat, share meals and pass the time. If you find yourself with some extra time, visiting the Malecon should give you an ample dose of the pastimes of the city's inhabitants, especially if you do so at night. Though photographing the Malécon is a challenge at night due to low-light conditions, a successful attempt would probably reveal the true (and relaxed) soul of Havana. Alternatively, you could visit the stretch during the day if you're able to brave the heat.
If it makes sense for your trip, renting a place for the night in Vedado should be cheaper relative to the city's other districts.
Life in vivid technicolour
It's hard to put into words just how well Havana is suited for aspiring photographers, and perhaps it is apt that the famed photographer Elliott Erwitt has a full fellowship program dedicated to the city. For those unaware, Erwitt was a documentary photographer who produced works that spanned all aspects of the human condition from conflict to love.
His lifelong love for the city culminated in the 'Elliott Erwitt Havana Club 7 Fellowship' program which seeks to inspire new generations of photographers by exposing them to the fertile photographic grounds of Havana. It also hopes that the world will be able to witness the beauty of a people living in what was once a fully isolated country.
If you're trying to source for inspiration, looking up the works of native Cuban photographers is tends to be difficult due to Cuba's strict media regulations. However, here's a pretty good roundup if you'd like to check out the works of some great Cuban photographers.
A visit to Cuba could mean a chance to document the lives of people that rarely have had their voice heard outside of their own neighbourhood, let alone their country. However, keep in mind that Cubans live through daily struggles that few of us can begin to understand. We should, therefore, treat them with respect, and tell their stories in a dignified manner.
We hope that this article dispels any fears or uncertainties about visiting Cuba and the photogenic city of Havana. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to us - we'll gladly help you out. In any case, don't pay attention to Donald Trump - visiting Havana is for all.
Love what you're reading? Follow us on Facebook for our regular photography briefs and all our articles on all things travel!