Photographing Old Havana
Baltimore photographer Lisa Dierolf Shires recently visited Cuba’s capital Havana on a photography trip in February. Shires and a fellow photographer friend did the research, practiced their Spanish and came up with a logistical plan. The duo made it to Cuba by way of Cancun – barely making their flight after they ran into complications in purchasing their tickets in Mexico. After converting Canadian dollars to Mexican pesos for flights at a terrible exchange rate and adapting to changes in original plans and funds, they focused their stay in the capital city. “The people were very patient with our Spanish and were very kind,” Shires said. “There was a separation between old and young on the contentment of the condition of the country.” The difference being that the younger generation was ready for change and access to information, she explained.
The Darkroom caught up with Shires who talked about Old Havana, its people, culture and daily life in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba.
Was there anything specifically that drew you to Cuba?
I made a promise to myself that before I got married I would take a solo trip somewhere with my camera. Alas, the adventure ended up happening after I got married and with a good friend and fellow photographer instead, but I’m so glad that is how it worked out – it’s great to have a travel companion. I knew that I wanted to go somewhere very different from here, to a Spanish speaking country, somewhere culturally unique, and ultimately, to a destination a bit off the grid. This was going to be a very personal trip and my to-do list was loaded: do a lot of soul searching, make powerful imagery, shoot what felt good and right, build relationships, blend in, and grow as person and as a photographer. I decided on Cuba because it definitely fit the bill and I thought it was a location where I could accomplish all of my to-dos, even though it ended up being a bit of a challenge (in a good way) once I was there. I wanted to learn the island, people, society, and the stories that exist only 90 miles away from our shore, but years behind modern society. Also, the allure of going to a place you’re not supposed to go to was quite intriguing.
Before heading down to Cuba, you spoke with owner and chef Marta Quintana of Havana Road Cuban Cafe. What advice did she offer you ahead of your trip?
The beginning of our conversation definitely scared me to death. She was blunt and honest and said that my room would be bugged, they might confiscate my gear and photos, and that crime was on the rise. I couldn’t help but think about the Marylander currently in jail in Havana. After the initial warnings, though, she told me I would be completely fine and gave me a warm hug before I left. She advised me to be aware of my surroundings at all times, try not to draw too much attention to myself and to have a great time. She is a kind, sweet, warm human being and I couldn’t be more thankful to her for sharing her story with me.
How would you describe Havana? Is it like stepping into a time warp?
We were both mentally and physically exhausted after hours of travel and after being questioned in Havana customs for almost an hour and a half. So, the 25-minute taxi ride from the airport to Habana Vieja was challenging to process. It was sensory overload for an already overloaded brain and body. My initial thoughts were “neat cars,” but they evolved to borderline bewilderment when I saw the condition of the buildings and infrastructure as we drove by. Even though I knew what to expect and prepared myself what I was seeing, I still had a reaction. Some, but not all, areas looked like rubble after a war. Most of the buildings are originals from the 1800s and have barely held up due to makeshift mending over the years. The government has stepped in to rehab parts of Habana Vieja for tourism, but the average Cuban citizen would never be able to afford these shops, restaurants and luxuries. Despite the physical condition of the city and the extreme gap between the rich and the poor, the neighborhood of Habana Vieja is full of life. It’s full of genuinely kind people doing what they need to do to make things and their lives work, despite the oppression that is evidently there.
Was there any particularly defining moments during your trip that surprised you, or made you change your opinion about the country?
I wouldn’t say that there was a particularly defining moment that caused me to change my opinion. If anything, I walked away from the trip with an increased respect for the common Cuban people and how they deal with the daily trials and tribulations of living in an oppressed society where socialism has clearly failed them. I would also say that my preconceptions were affirmed, and then some, each day. The biggest of which were that Cuban people are very poor and a serious food crisis still exists and has existed since the “Special Period” (when the Soviet Union cut its $6 billion annual subsidy to Cuba).
I suppose I was surprised that I didn’t see people begging for money on the street. What I did see, though, are women asking tourists to buy them diapers and powdered milk for their babies. To reinforce their requests, many have taught their children to do cute things like hold or kiss your hand. What I learned was that if you do oblige, many of these women will, in turn, flip those items on the Black Market, which I 100 percent cannot blame them for. If that’s what they need to do to keep their families fed, then so be it. Also, we would see people digging in the dumpsters at night. Aside from utilizing the Black Market, if you can afford it, there aren’t many other options for receiving a balanced meal when your daily bread ration is only 80 grams per day.
The other thing that surprised me was the existence of racism in Havana. Afro-Cubans, or darker skinned Cubans, are discriminated against in many ways. We witnessed this first hand while walking with a Cuban friend. We were stopped by the police who asked to see his papers. She then radioed to another police officer and said that if anything happened to my American friend and I, that they needed to look for the man we were with. Our friend told us that kind of thing happens to him all of the time because of the color of his skin.