I first visited Cuba in the summer of ’95, attracted by the mystery, history, and photographic possibilities of the island. At that time, I was solely a Canadian citizen (I became a dual citizen in 2000), so it was easy to get in. That summer was, as most summers have been when I’ve been in Cuba, searingly and wonderfully hot. My second day there, I met a girl named America.
This Moment, Exactly so -- My 20-Year Portrait of Cuba
“The sweat, the heat, the sensually glorious dancing, the music, the electricity in the air — I fell in love.”
She took me to a club called the Palacio de la Salsa at the Hotel Riviera on the Malecón, where a fifteen-piece Cuban orchestra of world-class musicians was playing to a jam-packed crowd of the best dancers on the planet. I was mesmerized.
The sweat, the heat, the sensually glorious dancing, the (very loud) music, the electricity in the air. I had planned to stay for two weeks and stayed for two months. I fell in love with the country. With its music, its people, its cars, its buildings, its sun, its stunning light, its friendships, and that special heat that is so uniquely Cuban.
Annie Leibovitz once said, “A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.” And that’s the way it is for me in Cuba: constantly falling in, even if sometimes only for 1/60 of a second. Some of the images in the book are of places I only visited once and people I only saw by chance only once, but many of the images are of places I visited again and again, and of people who were open enough to let me fall in love with them again and again over a period of many years.
“I want this book it to be like what Cuba is for me — a place where just walking the streets, breathing the air, and connecting with the people feels like a contact high.”
My goal in creating images in Cuba (and presenting them in this book) is not only to show what Cuba is like, but more importantly for me, what it feels like to be in Cuba.
Not only have I spent many peak moments of my life in Cuba over the last two decades, but in 2002, I asked my wife, Juliet, to marry me atop the lighthouse of Morro Castle in Havana. [ed. note: see top image]
She said yes, we popped a bottle of champagne, and at that precise moment, the lighthouse keeper came out and told us we had to leave, as the lighthouse was closing.
We shared our news and, with a (typically Cuban) joyous smile on his face, he said, “Congratulations! Listen, I have to go. Why don’t you enjoy the sunset and just lock up the castle when you leave!” With that, he was off, leaving us alone atop the lighthouse in a 425 year-old castle guarding the entrance to Havana.
I want to create images that communicate the elation I feel every second when I’m in Cuba. It is a feeling like no other — moments filled with passion, love, joy, desire, grace, beauty, friendship, and laughter. To paraphrase photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson: “If I go to a place, it’s to try and get that one picture about which people will say, ‘Ah, this is true. You felt it right.’” I want this book it to be like what Cuba is for me — profound, vibrant, trippy, electric — a place where just walking the streets, breathing the air, and connecting with the people feels like a contact high.
I came to Cuba initially for its history and mystique. But I keep coming back again and again for the people — for an endless string of experiences like the one atop the lighthouse — warm, openhearted people embracing you and inviting you into their lives and hearts. It’s a heady, intoxicating combination for anyone — especially a photographer.
This article originally appeared on Pixel Magazime and is republished here with permission.