Havana Dawn

School Girls

Each day in Havana we awoke at 6:15 to get a glimpse of the city waking up. On the first morning, we explored the colorful neighborhood just to the north and east of the Parque Central Hotel as outlined by the Prado (Paseo de Marti), San Lazaro (which parallels the Malecón), and Neptuno street.

School children, in their gold pants and skirts, were walking to class. Workers were stoping at the small Cafeteria’s setup from private houses to get coffee and roll. A few cars were on the streets, but generally people walked. By the time we reached this busy corner, the sky was starting to lighten, but there was still the feeling of dawn light.

The big American pre–1959 cars are ubiquitous in Havana. They seemed to make up about 50% of all the cars I noticed in Havana. Sometimes they are beautifully kept with bright shiny wax jobs, and other times they look like they are held together with wire and house paint. There are a smaller number of Soviet-era Ladas on the road which must have been the primary import until the break up of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. And finally, a small percentage of new Korean Hyundais are seen. The best kept of the American cars are private Taxi’s catering to the tourist trade. There are only a few intersections with traffic lights within the neighborhoods of Havana and, outside of the Paseo de Marti which runs down each side of the Prado into Havana Central, there seems to be little need.

Off to Work

The View from the BiciTaxi

View from the BiciTaxi

On our first night in Havana, we attended a short talk and photography slide show from our photographic sponsors, Fototeca De Cuba. We traveled by bicitaxi, from our hotel, the Parque Central, to Plaza Vieja. Kip, from the Sante Fe Worshops, helped us negotiate a proper fare of 4 CUC for 2 people.

With night falling, an interesting perspective, and bumpy cobblestone streets, the short ride offered a chance for fun series and something a little bit different.

We saw some really interesting images at Fototeca, many were more political that I would have imagined. Some showing Cuba’s monuments engulfed in waves or juxtaposing people from the country side with American commercial products by holding cereal boxes or cleaning products. That night we saw the images of José Julián Marti showing the sweeping movements of the sugar cane harvest.

In the gallery, there was a series of about 16 images each arranged in one very large panel, like a contact print. Each print contained an image with one naked woman in a small room on a bed with an orange fringed bedspread. The women were in various positions of relaxation, repose, or boredom. The room was the same, yet, different with each woman. The feeling I got when looking at the images was as if each woman was asked to go into the room, undress, and then left there for an hour or so before the image was taken.

In some images, the woman’s belongings were clearly visible on the floor or shelves around the bed; some neat, others disheveled. In one image, in particular, there was an ashtray on the floor filled with the cigaret buts of at least a pack of cigarets. How long would that have taken?

Visually these images had great interest with green walls, orange spread, and the woman of her particular shape and size. The clutter and pose told the viewer something of her story, but just the smallest sliver. The real story versus the imagined sat solely with the viewer.

Here is my series from the streets of Havana that night showing you the colors, the streets, and the view from the BiciTaxi.

Car Lights

A Woman Passes

Dance with the Blue Car


Cat in the Road

Tunnel of Lights

Early Morning Havana

Havana Morning

I took this image early morning and just cranked up the ISO to 25600. The mixed lighting and beat up streets was more than I could pass up even though I pretty much knew it was beyond the capabilities on my Oly OMD. I figured I had enough images with blurry people and cars.

The final camera settings were 1/1000 sec at f/1.8, ISO 25600 with the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens; (the native high-ISO on the Oly OMD is 5000, anything above that is in the extended range). It turns out, it was pretty darn grainy, but also pretty well exposed to the right so all my shadow detail was there. The results are based on some tender-loving-care in Nik Define and Lightroom.

Originally I figured I’d keep it in B&W, to accept the grain and cancel out all the crazy white-balance. The color also has it’s charms.

Havana Morning

Havana Morning Scene

Green Car Passes

Each morning in Havana, Kip Brundage from the SanteFe Workshop team, would lead a group on dawn patrol. At 6:15am, Kip would provide a dawn tour of an area in Central Havana so that by the time the light was up, we had our bearings and could use the morning light to make some photographs.
On the first Dawn Patrol, Kip lead us down the Prado and into a neighborhood situated north-west of the hotel.

One particular street had two competing Cafeterias, private residences serving coffee and pastries out their front windows, which attracted a lot of action and attention.

I stayed for about 10 minutes to catch several different daily life scenes play out.

I was initially attracted to this scene because of the blue car, lights on, and obvious concern by the driver. It is very common to see drivers out of their cars rummaging under the hood or in their trunks.

Is Something Wrong?

Just Checking

I took this image as the car began to drive off, it shows the full context of the scene.


Some closer images

Three Amigos

Coffee Purchase

Footnote: Thank you to Glenn Primm, a long-time LA Photojournalist, who has been following my posts. He pointed out to me that my edit, while technically OK, didn’t convey the mood of the shots. He suggested that I bring down the exposure to match the morning scene. These are new edits as of Sunday morning.

Havana, like the mojito, a muddle of fragrant, sweet, and strong.


As I reflect on my time in Cuba, I can see how the mission for my photography is continuing to develop. My approach, interest, talent, artistic intent, is to express a sense of place, to observe what makes a place unique and then to show it to others with as much clarity as I can possibly muster.

I do not focus on landmarks, except to show how they form a backdrop to everyday life. I do not agonize about historic facts and dates, except to understand how they are expressed in the present. And although I thoroughly enjoy museums and visitor destinations, I prefer to walk with the people than to revisit the stories as written by the victors.

And so it was with Cuba, with precious little time, uncertain in my abilities to capture what I felt, I did what I could.

I walked the streets, smelled the smells, listened to the roar of classic American cars, the bird songs on the Prado, the whistles of the biciTaxis (pedicabs), children playing, and the waves crashing against the Malecón. I awoke with the city to see neighborhood workers buying coffee out of residential windows and children walking to school. Old cars set against older buildings. The Cuban people invite you into their homes, hoping the tourist will provide for a CUC (equivalent to $1 USD) or soap or other commodity that they can use to barter for whatever they might need. Everything is used and reused, mended and repaired. The way they care for their belongings remind me of my grandparents generation who, having lived through the American depression of the 1940s, saved everything.

Spanish colonial architecture, in much less than perfect condition, abounds. It must have been a sight when all was pristine and glowing. It is surreal with grand buildings abandoned except for the 3rd floor which is home to the most sought after paladar (private restaurant) in Havana Vieja.

With the legalization of small private businesses, Cuba is in at a tipping point of change. The economic pyramid is upside-down. Educated professionals – doctors, electricians, researchers – make the equivalent of 15 to 25 dollars a month. A taxi driver will make this in a day. Havanan’s serve coffee out their front windows and cut hair in the hallway. They fix engines in their entryways and turn their apartments into restaurants. A small watch repair is setup in the corner of a nail salon. BiciTaxi’s, jockeying for your ride at the hotel,  will wait while you enjoy a two hour leisurely dinner for the chance of a 4 CUC return fair.

Like the mojito with its of fragrant mint, sweet sugar, and strong drink, the Cuban entrepreneurial spirit is a bit of a muddle.

Selling Papers

Che, Fidel, and Me

Is Something Wrong?

Havana First Impressions – Paseo del Prado

Playing on the Prado

I thought it would be easy to sit down and write a post about my first impressions of Cuba and Havana, but I was wrong. There is too much to say and I know too little.

Man in Thought

After a morning of travel and lunch stop at a government restaurant, we finally settled into the Hotel Parque Central around 4pm. By 5pm I was taking my first, tentative, walk in Havana, down the Paseo del Prado.

After Work

The Prado is a large pedestrian walkway that leads from Havana Central to the harbor and the Malecón, the sea wall. Immediately I felt the presence of the people, birds, and traffic which roared down the busy Paseo de Marti on either side.

Family Afternoon on the Prado

The Prado is a gathering place for friends, family, children playing, street vendors, and just a place to sit and rest at the end of the day. Every few feet is an alcove with stone benches built into the wall separating the Prado from the busy 2-lane street on either side of the walkway. Immediately I was attracted to the small groups that would gather in each of the alcoves. Kids playing, people resting, families, and friends engaged in conversation. I could have spent the week just walking up and down the Prado capturing its little scenes.

Mercado La Primera De Prado

Some kids follow you along, asking “monea, monea?”. Unfortunately this is too common with young children and old women. But mostly people sit and talk and go about their business and are open to the American, Canadian, and European tourists snapping their pictures.

An Open Trunk

The ubiquitous 50’s American car, in all states of repair and disrepair. A car by the side of the road with either the hood or trunk open is a common site.

Red car in motion

Street Scene

After a short walk, I reached the Malecón. Like most landmarks, there are lots of great travel images of the Malecón taken at the right time of day, in the right weather, with just the light, the right car coming down the road, and the appropriate amount of waves splashing over the wall or children playing. But my first impressions are on a mostly cloudless day as the sun sets. Men and boys playing with their dogs as a couple of young photographers look on.

The Malecón