During my first two or so weeks in Havana, I didn’t take my camera out at all. It felt too touristy, and I already felt Gringa enough with my light skin, overalls, and ratty white tennis shoes. Awkward and jolty and stumbling between tu and usted. I didn’t want to waste precious rolls of film when I didn’t yet know what there was to capture.
As the days passed by, my five years of spanish in high school kicked back into gear and my skin got darker, and some asked if I was Española, and not from Los Unidos. An improvement.
What I noticed from my long walks to the Malecón and back, diverging down side streets and into plazas… little pockets of life and light peppered in the buildings as you pass by. Most look straight ahead down the road, but if you scan side to side like a sprinkler you can see families dancing together, old women in patterned sun dresses hanging out the windows, baking cakes, and entire lives unfolding from behind wrought iron bars, basked in an orange glow.
I started to peel back what my foreign eyes saw first, buildings, cars, big monuments, into the lifestyle of people. What they indulged in, how they communicated, how they spent idle time, how they got their groceries, all in front of this gorgeous rainbow backdrop of peeling paint and broken tiles.
My favorite things to photograph quickly emerged: haircuts, ice cream, cake, cigarettes & cigars, fruit carts, and phone calls. These are snippets of daily lives of Cuban people, at a crossway between their most joyful and most vulnerable. Many were confused when I went into a barber asking for a photo, or asked them to bring their half licked ice cream cones into the frame.
Barber Shops: These pop out before you frequently, and are almost always occupied. The silver of the mirrors are starting to oxidize but the barber works quickly like an artist, and even young boys start getting their hair and eyebrows done.
Ice Cream: The ice-cream in cuba is either pink or white. I have never seen chocolate. I’m told the pink one tastes like cough syrup to foreigners, but the Cubans love it.
Cigarettes: As soon as I tuned my mind to trying to find people smoking, puffs of smoke perforated my vision. Everyone is in their doorway or on a street corner taking a smoke break. But they never finish their cigarettes, they take maybe one or two breaths before flicking it onto the ground. The tobacco tastes entirely too sweet, and there are no filters.
“perdone que le moleste”
“puedo sacar un foto?”
You get whats in season, no cross country trips to bring you avocados. It’s whatever is available. You can tell which are sweetest and ripest fruits by how many flies flock to them. Bananas are tiny and one peso each, and everything else is negotiable. Start speaking Spanish and state your price and you will usually get your way, or at least they will make you think you get your way. Typical purchases are bananas, garlic, peppers, small onions, cabbage, and lots of tomatoes.
other street treats…
Guava Paste- Theres a little vendor around the corner from us that sells thick sweet bricks of guava paste. It’s like jam, good on crispy bread, and less than 50 cents for a good chunk, enough to last you a couple weeks. It smells savory but tastes sweet.
Crema de Cacahuate– Peanut butter is a popular treat and sold in little bars like chocolate. You can get them off the street, or from people sitting in the doorway of their houses with a tray on their lap. Typically they are 5 peso libre, and have peanuts on top too for a little crunch. They must mix them with sugar because they are so tasty and sweet.
Papas Fritas– These are also sold by peddlers in the street or by people in stands. The portions are much smaller than you are used to, maybe 10 chips in a little bag.
Boiled Corn on the Cob– A woman has a cart here right before you enter Plaza del Cristo, you can get the corn with mayonesa, mantequilla, or just pico. She sprinkles it with thick flakes of sea salt. It doesn’t taste like corn back home, actually none of the food here tastes like food back home because it’s not selective and modified. It tastes less perfect, more real.
It’s difficult to have a business in Cuba. You could work hard for years, just get off your feet and make a bit more money, and the government could come in at any moment and shut you down. For this reason, a lot of people have halfway businesses.
Walking down the street, a lot of the apartments on the first floor have their windows open, sliding treats through their windows or selling goods from behind the swirling wrought iron frames. Some sell coffee in small Dixie cups from the doorway, others blend up fresh mango juice for you in their kitchen. I found this sign posted on either wall besides the entrance to an apartment, someone who sells cakes from their home.
Pay phones line all of the cracked walls in Havana. They take call cards, you have to purchase at a phone store. They have a certain amount of money or time on them, so I would see clusters of people all huddles around a phone, passing the receiver back and forth.
One day on my way to get some groceries, I spotted a girl in her school uniform giggling on the phone. She pressed the receiver into her smiling cheeks. You could just tell she was talking to someone she liked, the way her eyes were dazzling. I paused, and held up my camera and motioned to it, not wanting to interrupt her phone call entirely. Her eyes got wide and she shook her head. I thought about how I would have reacted if my friends had tried to take a photo of me texting my first boyfriend when I was sixteen, corners of my mouth creeping up without my control. I would have been so embarrassed.
As I walked on by without clicking my shutter, she laughed and quickly told the person on the other end that a tourist had just tried to take her photo.
This is the fruit market I went to everyday to do my grocery shopping. It had more options than most around me, and was more reliable than the cart on wheels that was sometimes outside my apartment but sometimes not.
I don’t think this man who owned the stand liked me at first. I kept trying to talk him down on papaya prices and mistook a batch of small plantains for bananas. Towards the end of my stay though, he started throwing in a couple free tomatoes or onions,and made sure the guavas I got were the best ones of the bunch.
On the far yellow wall, there are two hanging pictures. One, a painting of a bouquet of bright orange flowers, and another landscape. It feels kind of funky, like a little house but with only two walls.
Most of the time I went in he was smoking, and one time he was behind the counter, between the papayas and tomatoes, right up against that bright yellow wall, shaving and looking into a little hand held mirror.
These photos were taken on a Rebel Ti. For more information on film photography, equipment I use, and how to take your own film photos, click to download the Film Photo PDF Guide