Welcome to my country, no photos please

Adam Murphy,

Today was my third full day in Cuba, but my first as a photojournalist.

Unlike other students on my trip to Cuba, I am not proficient in taking pictures on a professional camera. To make up for this, our professor gave us a crash course in about an hour. Afterward, we were directed to go practice taking pictures then report back to her a couple hours later. Hmmm… where to go? What to shoot?

The storm clouds were rolling into Havana like some biblical storm was approaching. In the distance I could hear the thunder and see the lighting rock and flash across the afternoon sky. This put the pressure on me to get some shots done before the rain restricted me from taking pictures outside.

The perfect place to take pictures was less than half a block down the street. I noticed it when I first got to the hotel. It was a rundown soccer field surrounded by a track and a large amphitheater for people to watch the games. Over my first few days in Havana I regularly saw many people playing soccer and exercising there. Since my project is about exercise and nutrition, I figured it was the perfect place to go for my first shots.

About five of us went there to take pictures for various reasons. Our large group of fair-skinned people with cameras around our necks drew a lot of attention. As we walked down the street it seemed like every single car honked at us to ask if we needed a taxi. Beep beep… Taxi? They would ask. Our response started as a “no gracias” and then changed to us simply ignoring the cars.

Upon arrival to the field, our large group split up since people wanted to take pictures of different things. These items included different things such as the field, stadium, workout equipment, etc. Unlike other members of my group I came there to get pictures of people exercising either on the jungle gym, the soccer field, and the track that surrounds it. This day was a Monday afternoon, so nobody was at the field doing any exercise-related activities.

Because of this, I simply walked around getting shots of the exercise equipment and the old stadium. After a few shots I began exploring the area behind this stadium where I was surprised to discover other exercise-related areas such as a badminton court, three full-sized basketball courts, and three gigantic Olympic-sized pools.

After taking many pictures, a man appeared and told us, “no fotos por favor.” He began to follow us around like a fly hovering around garbage. Convinced he was a shady character looking for money, we all put our cameras away and left that area. Luckily the man did not follow us. Our group moved to a new area that was connected to this large sporting location. After about thirty seconds of taking shots there, the same shady-looking man appeared and told us, “no fotos” in a stern voice and waved his hands in displease.

Luckily this time one of the people within the group knew Spanish and began talking to him and found out he was the director of this large sporting complex. He told her that he did not want people to take pictures because he was afraid that we would use the pictures to show the poor condition of Cuban recreation facilities to others back home. However, it was quite the opposite; everybody in the group was amazed at how beautiful the structures were and how they have survived for many years. After talking for a few minutes he agreed to let us walk around, but not take pictures.

This taught me a couple valuable lessons related to Cuba. The first is that pretty much any place you go people will be there sitting in a chair, watching for pictures and to make sure nobody messes up the items at the place, whether it be at a sporting complex or a museum.

The last lesson it taught me was not to assume that every Cuban approaching you while you are taking pictures will ask for money. A lot of times they just want to start a conversation. It is up to you ask questions to understand the situation and learn about the person’s story.

Distrust is easy when there is a cultural and language barrier, and understanding and communicating is hard. Doing so, however, will enrich your experience in the foreign country and allow you to grow as a person. So next time someone tells you, “no fotos por favor,” ask why? The answer and following conversation might surprise you.