Havana from Behind a Camera

Photo Feature by Puru Panchalingam*

image009HAVANA TIMES — As I landed in Havana in November, 2014, the city had turned 495 year old, the last 55 of which were spent frozen in time since the Cuban revolution. Battered by hurricanes and bleached by the Sun, Havana is a city of contrast and faded elegance. It easily offers up its history, sights and colours. It is by far, one of the most elegant, visually seductive and gritty cities I have photographed.

As I walked the city’s lively narrow streets, it provided little visual clutter. I didn’t have to contrive a line of sight that left out gigantic McDonalds arches, Nike swooshes or Mastercard billboards, a corporate brands and advertising desert. Yet in every direction, there is something eye-catching kept afloat by the rhythm of the buildings and inhabitants.

In old Havana and along the Malecon sea-wall there is a lot of restoration work underway to resuscitate the crumbling buildings to their former glory. Numerous and often smoky vintage cars ply the city boulevards making this the largest museum to 1950s American cars.

As the day draws to a close and the Sun sinks behind the Havana skyline, I escaped to the rooftop terrace of my casa-particular.

image016It is the perfect spot to spend the warm muggy Havana evening. The bluish and yellowish glow of streetlights descend over the quieting city below. I sipped rum, smoked a cigar, and sorted through my days photos.

I was faced with a familiar dilemma, what photos to keep, and what to throw away. It is not an easy process. As a new political dawn rises over Cuba, I can only fathom what Havana will keep, and what she will throw away. With normalization of relations with the United States, Cuba has leapt into a historical decisive moment. Where will her feet land, and how will she change? – only time will tell.
(*) To see more of HT reader Puru Panchalingam’s photographs visit:  http://goo.gl/XGLfzw  or   https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.801544173222109.1073741849.598166803559848&type=1&l=ca1b81539b


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17 thoughts on “Havana from Behind a Camera

  • Amazing images, very beautiful.

  • A GOOD friend of mine who happens to be a plumber in Washington DC runs a tool collection program that delivers donated new and used tools to Cuba using the Pastors for Peace caravan for transport. He has done this every year for five years and donates several tons of electric saws, drills, hammers, pliers, screwdrivers, etc. Without fail, the new, still in box power tools are “confiscated” in Customs. The ‘newer’ used tools end up being sold retail, leaving the older tools for distribution to the actual plumbers, electricians, masons, etc. who actually need and use these tools to make their living.

  • On balance, life has improved for nearly everyone on the planet, including African-Americans since the late 19th century when Frederick Douglass was alive. The worst examples of life for Black folks are indeed discouraging. But the best examples, where I choose to focus my attention, give hope that improvement is possible. Comparing the condition of African-Americans to Cubans is bad science, but for the sake of debate the biggest difference is freedom. There will always be racist cops and racist District Attorneys who distort justice in the US. But in Cuba these are not distortions but everyday life. In Cuba, there is no protest to air grievance. Just ask Tania Brugera. As I always remind commenters like you who would justify the problems in Cuba by pointing out the flaws in the US, when your neighbor beats his wife and you hopefully intercede, is he justified when he says he knows that you scream at your kids? Do US problems make Cuban problems okay? This is HavanaTimes. There are lots of blogs to discuss US problems. Try to stay focused on Cuba here at HT.

  • My comments were a bit tongue in cheek but the truth is that Cuba needs more than some tools in the hands of industrious people. What Cuba needs are serious systemic changes that allow for substantial growth and the industrial and infrastructure changes that would bring about. Unfortunately a few tools won’t cut it.

  • Moses, Frederick Douglass the man you pretend to be would cry about black people in the United States today. Gun violence, racial discrimination, police brutality. Blacks Cubans are sometimes no better in America than they were in Cuba. Do you watch the news about black people protesting in the streets of America and caged like animals in its jails? America has a higher incarceration rate than Cuba, do your research. Sure you can have your McDonalds, but what good is it when you will be shot trying to buy one?

  • ok stop giving the castro government more credit than it deserves at being able to appropriate anything. People from Florida land regulary in Havana with everything from fridges and car tires. They are not being appropriated, are they? I think the guy is talking about handing stuff out to the locals as a tourist. Just because you made it out dosent mean the others left there need to suffer needlessly from the pains of your past.

  • “…because I am sure they would be put to creative and constructive use”. Yes indeed! I would suggest that the Cuban people arr the most creative and industrious of people. The problem lies with the repressive communist government. So I’m afraid were these “tools” of yours made available, the government would simply appropriate them. And of course the would be, as usual, put to inefficient use, the inevitable result of communist central planning

  • Thank you for your reply. The HDR technique is a fascinating approach to photography. As you mention, and as I have discovered in my own modest experiments in photography, simply boosting the chroma or saturation will not achieve the profound results you have been able to do in your evocative photographs.

    Very interesting!

  • Also to be clear, I hope you not believe that I am critical of your comments. I simply shared what your comments reminded me of. Given such a short visit, it comes as no surprise that you would be left with the impressions you shared. Given your personal experience in a third world country, I imagine that you understand that the “inhabitants” who you said were “eye-catching” are people who dream of happy lives. While you may have disdain for McDonald’s golden arches and Nike swooshes, can you say for sure that some of those ‘inhabitants’ might not enjoy a Big Mac or slick new pair of athletic shoes? I enjoyed your photos very much. I recognize many of the street scenes you have captured. I also have friends who live in or near some of those buildings and I know how they are forced to live because of the unsafe conditions these structures bear. Thank you for responding to my comment. I hope you come to understand better the lives of these “inhabitants”.

  • You raise a very good point!

  • As a tourist/photographer who goes to Cuba for a few days, it is neither fair nor intelligent to pass judgments on a country and its people. I have tried to keep my perspective within my role. I will let Cubans (outside and inside) speak on Cuba and I am sure they have lots to say. However, I do empathize with your point and hope that Cubans will achieve the social, economic and political freedoms that I cherish in Canada. And at the same time there are Cuban values that I discovered that I wish we in the West would also cultivate. So hopefully that clarifies my position.

  • on the technique – the vibrant colours and exposure is a result of a photographic technique called “HDR” which allows the Highlight/Shadow details to be preserved closer to what your eye sees. This is normally not possible with a single image. So unfortunately boosting the saturation (chroma) and/or reducing contrast alone will not bring out the same results. It requires a series of images that are blended in software to produce the result you are seeing. I am certain you will be able to do this automatically in your camera in future camera models.

  • I had worked within a prescribed length of 200 words for my writeup. So not possible to address all the relevant perspectives. Secondly, as a tourist/photographer who goes to Cuba for a few days, it is not fair nor intelligent to pass judgements on a country and its people. I have tried to keep my perspective within my role. I am originally from a third world country and have first hand knowledge of political turmoil. I will let Cubans (outside and inside) speak on Cuba and I am sure they have a lots to say. However, I do empathise with your point and hope that Cubans will achieve the social, economic and political freedoms that I cherish in Canada. And at the same time there are Cuban values that I discovered that I wish we in the West would also cultivate. So hopefully that clarifies my position.

  • Eloquent comments!

  • Great selection of photos P.P. My first visit this Dec. I was inspired to start painting again,the colours , sounds,art, and most of all by the kindness and enthusiasm for life of the people I met. Coming back to England just before the new year was like visiting a morgue. However the January sales woke a lot of people to continue the consumer fest. How much crap do we need? Wish we could supply tools and materials to Cuba, because I am sure they would be put to creative and constructive use there by ordinary folk.

  • Your photographs are beautiful and capture the heartbreaking decay all around Havana.

    A technical question: Did you boost the chroma in post-processing?

    A political point: there is no “new political dawn” rising over Cuba. The Castro regime remains firmly in control, the Communist Party maintains it’s monopoly on all political power, and the Cuban military is growing richer with all the tourism and trade money flowing into its coffers.

  • This HT reader’s recounting and photo essay of his recent trip to Cuba reminds me of countless stories told by sympathetic whites who visited the antebellum south prior to the US civil war. While whites waxed poetic about the beautiful French colonial plantation homes and the rows of slaves singing in the fields, the truth behind this idyllic imagery was entirely different and its legacy continues to this day. The truth behind the “faded elegance” and absence of “visual clutter” is the lack of an economic base and a modern infrastructure. Cuba will need many generations to recover from the disaster caused by the Castro revolution, just as America continues to recover from the scars caused by US slavery.

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