If you're already humming Havana ooh-nah-nah, I apologize in advance. I just have to share about this Women’s Photo Tour to Cuba.
In late October this year (yep, you read that right, in one of my two busiest months of the year), I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go on Amanda Bjorn's incredible women’s photo tour to Cuba. I wrote that sentence a few times, and it worked out because it was both a tour of Cuba with incredible women, as well as an incredible photography tour. There were five of us on the tour, and Amanda (our fabulous tour guide) arranged this three day tour for us. Our first day was a wandering Havana day. We got to walk these incredibly safe streets and do our street photography.
Day 1: Street Photography
Imagery coming out of people’s visits to Cuba is often peppered with the 50s cars that are omnipresent on the island. The cars are absolutely iconic and incredible, and it really does feel like you’ve stepped into another time when you get off the plane, it’s true.
But what stopped me in my tracks as we toured Havana was always the children. I’ve spent so much time in the last year photographing 10-12 year old girls for my tween empowerment Who I Am Project that I couldn’t help but be just bowled over by the children as I experienced the city. I’d stop, and with our wonderful tour guide Amanda translating into Spanish for me (why, oh why did I choose French in middle school??), I’d ask nearby parents if it was OK for me to photograph their children. If parents were nowhere to be found (as was the case for these next girls), I’d ask the kids themselves. I really wanted to be careful to honor the children, honor their personhood… I never wanted to feel like I was taking their photo - stealing it, for me to use just for my purposes.
Well, in reality, I guess that’s what I was doing, but because I knew I wanted to share my photos with you guys online I always wanted to make sure I gave the people I photographed something in return. Something to say thank you - something to say, you’ve given me something - here’s something from me. So that was the way I did my Cuba photos - I made sure that absolutely everyone I photographed received something from me as kind of a “trade". It’s a complex head space to be in, photographing in a place like this, and I think it’s something everyone who travels kind of has to figure out on his or her own. For me, since I do photography as my job, I just really wanted to do my photos in Cuba this way.
When I was packing for the trip I heard from friends who’d visited Havana before that I should bring things to give out that my children would appreciate. Because kids are kids. I found these My Little Pony change purses at the airport, filled with a little bit of candy… these girls were pretty psyched when they opened them up.
Boys the same age caught my eye too - the fact that fun’s being had, giggles are rampant… kids' smiles just always make me smile, every time. I adored the moments I got to witness.
And when their friends peeked out of nearby doorways, wondering what the goodies that the boys were getting from us could be (I think these guys got packs of gum), Mary had hair scrunchies (btw, isn’t it crazy that scrunchies are back?...but I digress) and bows and clips for these sweet girls.
Given the very name of my business, you guys know what always stopped me in my tracks as we walked around, right? It was the babies of Havana. Hanging out in doorways, being their cute little selves with their families. For my baby photos, I always touched base with parents first… I'd brought band-aids, diaper wipes, lotion, soap, all kinds of things I’d heard might be appreciated by new parents.
And you guys, it was the kids… the kids were what grabbed me every time.
You can kind of see in the last photo in this next set - the one in the bottom right with the family all in the doorway, as these guys are passing the band-aids, gum, wipes and stuff around, with big smiles on their faces. It felt like we were able to help people just smile a bit more that day.
And then when I got a chance to come down and hang out on a curb with a cutie pie and his mama? It was the best. He was there hanging out with his family in their doorway, playing with a taxi bicycle and I settled in with them for a few minutes. Eventually it got to the point where I was doing my usual silly stuff (I quite literally fell off the curb as I was attempting to be silly - hence his smiles) and I just love how universal those smiles are.
A few more for you from this day… the things that stood out to me here were:
1) Crocs are the best shoes
2) sisters wear matching dresses even in Cuba, and their mamas stand behind me asking that they give each other “besos,” just like they do here
3) daughters get shy and lean into mamas everywhere
4) the adoring way mamas look at their tiny new babies doesn’t change, no matter where you are
5) daddies also make those adoring faces
6) tween girls can rock a pose everywhere
7) when you take your paci out it’s hard to smile right away
I did also take one or two photos of people I met this first day who weren’t children, and these three were the most memorable:
- The first, in the top left, was a woman we met who was seated by a public women's toilet, offering visitors the option to use toilet paper--for a tip. 🙂 Stroke of brilliance. We gave her a package of lots of different sized band-aids, and her nearby friend and she opened them right away and discussed the contents in detail.
- The person in the top right was working away on this motorcycle and I absolutely adored their vibe. The proudly-working-on-my-motorcycle face wins the day for me here.
- And last but not least, this lovely woman invited me into her home for a few minutes, and I will not soon forget her smile and warmth.
I talked a lot about Amanda in the earlier part of this post, but I didn’t mention her wonderful main man, Pablo. He’s a native Cuban and an incredible artist. We got a chance to visit one of his murals - it was just extraordinary to see in person! We were so lucky to have him on our tour with us, helping us really understand Cuba from the perspective of someone who grew up there. Give him a follow on Instagram - his feed is colorful, lively, and always expressive.
Phewf, do you believe that was all Day 1?
Day 2: Visit Cuban photographer Leysis Quesada Vera in her studio
The next day we were absolutely blown away by the art of Leysis Quesada Vera. She invited us into her home studio, and walked us through the different epocs of her work. I truly recommend you all spend some time on her gorgeous website which I’ve screenshot a bit of below. She took us through her early years (which lined up almost exactly with my business’ early years, so I was besotted right away). Her stories of snapping a photo while nursing a young baby daughter struck such a chord. We sat, rapt, in her home studio, surrounded by framed prints hung high on the walls above us, as she served us coffee and sat with her daughter in her lap and showed us her work, image by image.
Her ballet period - what she terms her "Pas de Deux” is breathtaking. I adore her use of light and shadow to tell her stories. The image below links to this part of her website:
And her earliest work, her work from her town - absolutely stunning. Again, the screenshot below will take you to this page of her site.
Her work is shown internationally, and she was in the New York Times last fall - just everything about her was impressive. Towards the end of our visit she showed us a documentary that had been made earlier in the year, highlighting her work and that of other Cuban photographers. Meeting Leysis was absolutely one of the highlights of my time in Havana.
And then we come to…
Day 3: Editorial Photoshoot with Cuban Models
What? Such a fun day! Amanda the great hired models for a styled editorial photoshoot on our third day of the tour and we got to play and have fun. Inside, outside, everywhere!
These models, my GOODNESS they were extraordinary. I only had a moment with the gorgeous Tatenda Dube (top right in the photo below). She’s moonlighting as a model here - she was also our extraordinary stylist for the day. You can follow her fun adventures on her Instagram.
I’ll start with the lovely Gaby. She was a total pro - completely relaxed in front of the camera. Her Instagram is gorgeous as well - follow it here.
And then there’s this superstar, Frank. I was really bowled over meeting him - he’s been a model for years, and he’s just so comfortable and natural doing it. He’s on the hunt for an agent in NYC and I really want to help him find one. Would you believe he spends his free time teaching aspiring models how to walk the runway there in Cuba? He’s a coach for up and coming models - I just think that’s so incredibly perfect. I do think you should all go give him a follow on Instagram, too.
So this was Cuba for me. And I’m realizing I didn’t even talk about the fact that we traveled with the most extraordinary group of women - that navigating the complexities of honoring our subjects and honoring the place and all these layers of what we were doing… that all this was made easier because of the company we kept.
Getting to know the extraordinary songwriter Louise Goffin (pictured center right in the collage below) in the days before her new album All These Hellos dropped? Absolutely incredible. And now when I listen to the album over and over in my car, I hear her incredible lyrics and really have a sense of who she is and where she’s coming from - it’s wonderful.
Getting to know Kasia Trojek and then come home and really explore her photography online - it’s just gorgeous! I absolutely adore her eye.
Being able to spend time with my longtime faraway girl crush, Umami Girl herself - Carolyn Cope… I adored this part. She’s smart, she’s hilarious, and she’s a perfect travel companion. And um, this red lentil soup from her blog - download this recipe stat. Trust me.
And last but not least, being able to experience Cuba with my favorite big sister Mary Hansen, of Piper Editorial fame - that was the piece de resistance. Another brilliant mind, with hilarity to match… travel companions to beat the band, I tell you. That’s me and Carolyn and Mary in the middle of my little collage below - just, you know, hanging with Fidel and Che. Because, you know, Cuba.
A photography tour of Havana with these extraordinary women — it was absolutely divine. I so loved experiencing this incredible country with such a graceful, gentle, thorough guide. Amanda’s tour was absolute perfection, and I’m so very grateful to have been a part of it.
Thanks for traveling internationally with me today. I'm usually on the stateside, capturing Boston's beautiful families. I'd love to catch you in the new year. Follow along by joining our e-mail list, why don't you!
I'm Jessica McDaniel, and May 2018 marked my 15th anniversary photographing babies and their families all around Boston.
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