Ardi Arni sunrise Cuba photography workshop
On the first morning of the workshop, this man befriended participant Rebecca Keyes, and began telling her his story of deportation from the U.S. back to Cuba. Photo © Ardi Arani.

Our Cuban Family: Seven Unforgettable Days & Nights in Havana

Stuart Schwartz and Jock McDonald led a group of American photographers to Cuba for a week of shooting. The group quickly became a family, and Cuba, a place capable of changing lives.

The week started in Miami. Stuart Schwartz and Jock McDonald met their six workshop participants in a hotel the night before the flight to Cuba. The group spanned more than three decades in age and as many shooting styles.

“My chief concern was, are these people going to get along?” says Stuart. “It was a big cross-section of participants, but it was a harmonious group of people, they were a family. It was a family trip.”

Monday morning the group boarded a plane to Havana. They a bus from the airport—the only time they would do so—to an all-you-can-eat chicken joint called El Ajibe for lunch. There was a band playing and a good atmosphere. “It was entry-level Cuba,” says Jock.

Rebecca Keyes Cuba photography workshop
Photo © Rebecca Keyes

After lunch, they checked into their hotel and went to meet the two local photographers who would help guide the group through Havana for introductions and mojitos at Ramses Batista’s new Manhattan-style studio. After an early dinner, they hit the hay—they were going to need their sleep for what was to come.

Tuesday started at 5:30AM in the lobby of the hotel for dawn patrol. “To get out as the light is developing—that’s the magic time. We walked down to the Malecón shooting cars, fisherman,” says Jock. There was a pick-up band playing on the corner. One of the musicians latched on to Rebecca Keyes, the youngest member of the group.

“This guy latches on to Rebecca, a young blond, and starts to tell her about his story of deportation back to Cuba from the States. He opened his heart to her,” Stuart says. “Ardi Arani took a wonderful picture of him, with his bible, silhouetted against the morning sky.”

Later they walked to Habana Vieja—Old Havana. “I talked to the group a lot about eye contact. Cuba is a heavy eye contact place, and photography requires that. You need to start the relationship with the eyes. We walked around and started to get the feel for the place.”

After lunch, they hired classic American cars and rounded up a group of body builders and went to shoot them across the harbor to a lighthouse area called Casablanca. “We were doing street photography in the morning, and in the afternoon we were shooting body builders with strobes and old cars. Alex and Ramses were giving the participants the Cuban perspectives,” says Jock.

The days went quick, and filled even quicker. The itinerary was kept loose enough to allow for moments of inspiration and excitement. They went to watch kids boxing and shot images of elementary-age kids duking it out in the ring. “They were wearing good protective gear, and at the end they’d give each other a good hug. Some tears were spilled, some pride was hurt, but it was that Cuban affection,” says Stuart.

Roger King classic American car Cuba photography workshop
The group traveled almost exclusively in classic American automobiles. Photo © Roger King.

They ate lunch at Mamma Inez, a restaurant opened by Fidel Castro’s chef of 40 years. They went to the place where they repair the fishing boats in Casablanca. “I’ve been trying to get into that place for more than 20 years,” says Jock. “It’s greasy, woody, real characters in there.”

One of the highlights was going into Josie’s house in Miramar, which means view of the sea. Her late husband was a colonel; Jock has known the family for years. The home dates from the 1890s with a fabulous Spanish double staircase. Entering is like stepping on to a fantastic old movie set, with old maps on the table, phones, a typewriter, old golf clubs, stacks of suitcases, but it’s been preserved because things aren’t discarded, they’re valued.

Josie gave them the run of the place, and they brought in prima ballerinas from the Cuban National Ballet and a couple of models. “The real unique thing about the workshop is how many different ways people could shoot—there was a wide spectrum of the types of shooting that was done,” says Jock.

Ballerinas in Josie's house, Havana, Cuba photography workshop
Ballerinas from the Cuban National Ballet shot in Josie’s house, an 1890s-era Spanish-style home. Photo © Jock McDonald.

They went to an old theatre where an Afro-Cuban dance troupe was rehearsing and to the café in Cojimar where Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea. “Getting them beyond the tourist veil, into Josie’s house, where these dancers rehearsed, was a big part of what made the trip,” says Stuart.

Cuban Vision of Cuba photography workshop
The father of one of the ballet dancers in Josie’s house. Photo © Stuart Schwartz.

“Two years from now, the Cubans are going to be so tired of having their picture taken by Americans coming over. I think that’s going to be where the biggest change is going to come in terms of the impact of tourism,” Stuart says.

“We were lucky in that it was a group of very positive people who took it at face value that there is no set schedule. It will be set by the day as we move though it,” says Jock.

One highlight was the evening they spent at the Tropicana, a club that dates from 1939. Everybody was dancing and having a good time. When they finally left after midnight, rather than go straight home, Ardy suggested they get a couple of convertibles and cruise the Malecón.

“Two cars, passing cigars between them, the music, the Malecon, that wasn’t on any itinerary. That was Ardy saying, Let’s just drive up and down and cruise!” says Stuart. (Watch the video below made by participant Bob Hemstock.)

‘“You don’t get the chance to relive it—if you want to take the next workshop, it won’t be the same. It will be wonderful, but it can’t be the same,” Jock adds.

For some, it was a week, for others, it was a lifetime. For Jock, it was two days and 11 nights. For all, it was a life-altering experience. Waiting in the airport on the way home, Rebecca wrote an emotional poem that she agreed to share below. “It just shows how deeply Cuba has affected me,” says Rebecca.

Jock has been to Cuba more than 50 times in the past two and a half decades, and he’s already got plans to go again. “People ask me, ‘How do you go there over and over for 25 years?’ My answer is, it makes me better,” he says.

And the time to go is now. Throughout the week, there weren’t more than two instances that someone didn’t want their picture taken, but as Cuba opens up to the rest of the Western world and American tourists in particular pour in, that’s likely to change.

For now, Cuba remains that illusive place, full of kindness, inspiration, and the human spirit. A Cuban Vision of Cuba: Exhibition & Opening will take place at The Image Flow June 6 and run throughout the month, featuring work by all six participants as well as the instructors. Stuart and Jock will lead two more workshops to Cuba in February 2016: A Cuban Vision of Cuba February 1 – 7, and The Havana Highway: Rum, Cars & Cigars February 10 – 16. Registration is now open.
Havana, Cuba – Where urban decay is plenty and beautiful Where poverty is a way of life Where a simple pen and pad of paper makes someone that much richer Where an actual baseball changes the game for kids Where people don’t mind you asking to photograph them—and posing them in so MANY different ways Where taking multiple showers in one day is common Where dancing and music is everywhere Where the Malecón wall is the hot spot for hanging out with friends and loves Where people give you eye contact and are genuinely kind Where creativity runs throughout the streets—from a boy playing baseball with a stick and a bottle cap (and hitting it each time) to a man turning a crumbled building with missing walls and ceiling into a Manhattan-style photo studio with parts he bartered to get since there is nothing like Home Depot for nails Where advertisement billboards are nonexistent Where street signs are just concrete protrusions on the ground and marked by numbers Where traffic lights show the numbers counting down until they turn Where cars have the right of way—not pedestrians — Rebecca Keys, April 2014 Cuba photography workshop participant

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