Cuba: One Photo, Please

David Canela

HAVANA TIMES, Feb 25 — Apparently, taking a simple photo in a public place in Cuba represents a threat to state security, as if it were a bomb or a massive riot.

This leads me to pose some problems. The first is that of freedom, and its unequal interpretation with respect to the rights of citizens and foreigners.

Tourism is one of the three mainstays of the Cuban economy, discounting of course remittances, which contribute the largest amount of the net revenue to the government treasury.

However, no tourist in the world — except in North Korea — is ever told when they come to a country that it’s forbidden to take photographs in any institution or property or environment relating to the state.

It appears to be like a curfew or a perpetual ban on information which could originate from independent media.


It means that taking a photo in a hotel or on a city street could be considered a subversive act, unless it’s inferred that you took it for your personal recollection, or that you state its purpose (sometimes this is done indirectly, if it’s known you’re are a “simple tourist,” for example, or a government approved reporter, a painter, a photographic artist or an architect).


Where Are the Prohibitions Stated?

They sell cameras in Cuba, but nowhere are there instructions — not in the store or in the manual for the camera (which of course isn’t made in Cuba) — as to which places or objects of photos are or aren’t allowed, except perhaps after they’ve been snapped.

Suspicion and fear of the truth spread like shadows in the minds of the pursuers. Likewise, the paranoia that’s so intrinsic to the police system begins to sink into the mind of the photographer, as if they were a spy who was endeavoring to steal some military or industrial secret tucked away in some remote office.

I know Cubans who have been forced to delete their photos simply for photographing a police officer or a “strategic location” (the outside of a bus terminal or a bank), and even for taking photos of street performers who were being photographed by other tourists – foreigners, of course.

So why do people take pictures? First, a photo is a testimony – as once were sculptures, paintings and engravings. It’s a story frozen in time and preserved for our memory.

If concentration camps had not been photographed after the end of World War II, revealing the skeletal bodies of those who existed in them and the piles of corpses dumped in mass graves, many people today might have doubted the gravity and scale of the genocide, even its very existence.

Thanks to the thousands of photographs taken during and after the war, there now remains tangible evidence for future generations who may have a better idea of it, beyond subjective reports of the magnitude of the crime. Without them, there would not have been a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Hiding such a profound story, like now trying to hide a reality that is so evident, to me seems like committing fraud against the future, like giving people a massive dose of amnesia.


In addition, photographs can be art, even when they capture those sordid and sad images of life, as demonstrated by Che Guevara himself.


The Public Domain in Cuba

The second problem is that of property, the connotation acquired by the so-called “public domain.” In Cuba there’s a role reversal: public space serves as the private domain of ??the state (“the street belong to the revolutionaries”), and the individual domain (one’s home) is more like a public space, in the eyes of one’s neighbors.

Until there is recognition, through legislation, of the right to own individual property, the whole country will behave like a private area of ??the state. The state is the owner of a huge company, a huge monopoly called the state, which administers through capricious, draconian and unilateral laws, and sometimes through none at all.

The ban that doesn’t allow the photographing of state institutions comes from a directive of the Communist Party, which claims that photos could be used for what it calls “counter-revolution” or the “bad-mouthing of the government.”

Conducting counter-revolution would be not only be making an objective analysis of the Cuban environment, but simply showing it. This is especially the case when and where reality has been silenced and banished from the official media, at least when it’s not used for demagoguery.

In addition, the fear of the repercussion that their publication could have is obvious. They must feel deep shame; they don’t want to admit that they were wrong.




They sanctified a state and a system that has let them down, one which they cling to only for fear of seeing the little they have being taken away. In exchange for a few crumbs, their loyalty hardened.

Today, December 14, 2011, they told me that because of my taking those pictures I was already (with a file).  So I can now expect that at any time I’ll be called in to be told that they didn’t like one of my photos very much. What’s funny is that what I’d tell them is…I don’t like them either.



3 thoughts on “Cuba: One Photo, Please

  • David,
    Don’t see any biography on you, but assume you live in Cuba. So why besides obvious irritation at having been told not to photograph by an annoying cop, did you write this?

    Perhaps you don’t know that the same thing happens all over the world, even in the socalled “free world.” Often it is done without any citation of any law or regulation and always with the threat of arrest and confiscation of your camera and destruction of your photos or video. And usually it is some officer being unnecessarily officious. What is also true is that some people get hassleled less in all these countries; journalists, tourists, other officials, celebraties, little old ladies and other innocuous people and the discrete.

    Then in the law based countries, you can sometimes photograph even embarrassing things if there has been a public case in your favor.

    So don’t take it so personally. And as to Cuban rights and politics, I’m sure you know that Cuba has absolutely no reason to fear anyone trying to ever interfere in your national security!

    So I guess those very one-sided, biased and usually falsely labeled photographs criticizing everything about Cuba that I see all over the Web are just nightmares I had.

    I took photos all over, good and bad stuff when I was in Cuba and have shared them with just about everyone I met and only once was i stopped or did someone try to stop me. I don’t always get seen as a tourist, but this day I was clearly seen as one. I was in a eye glass shop on Obisbo and while asking prices, I noticed some small cards supporting the Cuban 5 in a display case. I took out my phone and snapped a photo. The clerk objected. Too late, i already had the photo! Guess he stupidly thought I was going to ridicule a Cuban commercial enterprise for including propaganda in their store. Actually, I was impressed and wanted to show friends Cuba could mix commerce and politics.

    If you know how to make cops and clerks always smart, rational and nice people the world awaits your genius.

    Oh by the way, what was the photo you wanted to share. Can you describe what you saw?

  • Same question. Did you mouth off to the cop or something?

    Somehow, I managed to take well over a thousand photos during my 3 weeks in Havana and Cienfuego. I have pictures of Museums, the Military, a Naval Base, the waterfront, el Capitolia from several angles, and many just of Cuban children, elderly, lovers, and musicians. Oh, I also took lots of pictures of the Dogs of Cuba, I think they might make an excellent subject for a coffee-table book of Cuba.

    Somehow, no one ever hesitated to smile and pose. A few teachers with grade school students along the Prado did watch me carefully to make sure their charges were safe, but other than that no one paid much attention. When I needed new batteries, both in Havana and Cienfuego, people sent me to the stores that sold them. If they couldn’t help me the tried to find someone who could.

    All told, I thought Cuba provides a multitude of subjects for the amateur and professional photographer. When I look at the pictures I took there, and compare them with those I’ve taken in China and Mexico there is a world of difference. The people seem to be happy, and well enough off to enjoy a day at the Book Fair, or buy a dish of ice cream. The kids look pretty happy and healthy too.

    I have several photos of a Mexican preschool celebrating Easter. What a disappointment! Not one of the kids, all dressed up in their good clothes, and riding fancy trikes, looks happy. They are frowning and shoving each other. Obviously, the celebration was not their idea of a good time.

    In China, the few young kids I saw tended to be isolated, and often were peeking out from behind a parent. And many of those parents are visible in my pictures of Chinese workers towing 3 or 4 heavily loaded trailers with a bicycle.

    Pictures truly reflect the soul of a country. That may not be what you are focusing on, but if you study and compare the pictures after the fact, you can see much more than what you aimed for. I think one of the biggest differences between the pictures of Cuba and those of most of the other countries I’ve visited is the large number of kids enjoying themselves in public places, without the concern and fear of a pervert lurking behind every camera lens.

  • Was it forbidden for you to take this picture of the truck? I’m curious. I’ve been all around Cuba many times and never been warned about taking pictures of anything!

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