February 18, 2014

Cuba Spotlight: Syl Arena On Traveling Fast and Light

Syl Arena led his first Cuba Cultural Exchange for Santa Fe Photographic Workshops in November, 2013. So began his love affair with Cuba, and his re-discovery of beauty of natural light.

What were your expectations the first time you went to Cuba? 
Though in some way I had no expectations, I did anticipate a time capsule of history, and that I would see an economy and a society that’s struggled under 50 years of the American embargo. 

How did Cuba meet those expectations? 
I found Havana to be a very vibrant, “worn around the edges” kind of city, full of people who seemed to have a great sense of life and living. That surprised me the most. I found that it’s a country of few resources, but despite that they do such great things with what they have. They enjoy being with each other and talking, they don’t have all the distractions we have, which in many ways take us apart instead of bringing us closer together. So those parts really surprised me. In terms of the city itself, it really amazed me. Havana is an architectural treasure trove, with all the historic architecture at the center and more modern Soviet-era developments around the perimeter. It’s an amazing contrast between the Old Caribbean and the modern world.

What makes Cuba special for photographers? 
There are a lot of things. One is the light; the light is crystal clear. Also, Cuba is a treasure trove of people, places, spaces, light and shadows. One of the most challenging things about working down there is going from the intense light of the street to these dark places. We would be going through the street and someone would say, “Hey, come in here!” and we would enter a tenement apartment or a small tienda lit with a single light bulb. That’s a huge contrast. By and large the people were very receptive of being photographed.

How did your group respond to the experience of Cuba last November?
They loved it! For many people who went it was just a photographer’s holiday; go and make photographs, drink rum, and smoke cigars. But for others it was very serious photographic endeavor, taking a series of architectural shots or portraits. It gave them an awareness of a tenacious culture and society. Photographically they are certainly enriched through the challenges we faced. A lot of people came home with amazing photos they could never make here in the United States.

How has Cuba influenced your work? 
Cuba has influenced me in that I’m a guy who has worked with electronic flash for years, but in Cuba is that you travel fast and light, and things happen spontaneously. You don’t have the time to set up lots of gear. It brought me back to natural light photography. I’ve explored natural light more in the last six month than have in the last six years. 

What's the most challenging aspect of working in Cuba?
Going from intense sunlight to deep shadows, continually jumping back and forth, and having to photograph quickly and discreetly with minimal gear in a wide range of circumstances.  Photographically it’s an amazing situation to be in. You definitely practice your people skills. Many Cubans speak English, and one of the things that surprised me is not one of them expressed any anti- American sentiment. They are warm-hearted people. Many have relatives or friends in the United States, and they want to meet and talk with Americans. Cubans are people of pride, in themselves and in their country. Whether you agree or not, they are entitled to their political pride.

What's your favorite image you've made while you were on the island?
One of the things about old Havana is that the buildings are two to three stories high, so one side of the street is really bright and one is in shade, and the one in the sun works like a giant fill card for the shady side. So, we were walking down the streets and there were kids on the shady side of the street on a stoop, beautiful old doorway. I smiled and planted my camera. The boy just stared at me, and then his brother came. I made the image, gave them a handful of pens, and smiled and walked away. The image of the boy on the stoop has timelessness in the way he’s standing and the way he’s looking. It was an amazing experience. 

Given all the gulfs between the United States and Cuba, how do you see the role of artists in the cultural and political exchange? 
One of the things that surprised me about the Cuban photographers was how free they are to do their art. During our gallery and studio tours we saw the whole gamut of documentary style photography to pure artistic photography. Some of those images would cause many people to raise their eyes and think, “Hmm, that’s pretty aggressive art.” It surprised me to see such a wide range of work with the Cubans. They aren’t afraid to make powerful images, they aren’t afraid to push the envelope of what photography is and isn’t as an art form, and they aren’t afraid to show the work in public gallery setting. 

Join Syl and discover the light, the people, the places, the spirit that make Cuba a treasure for photographers.

Picturing Cuba: Havana and Viñales
with Syl Arena
April 15 - April 23, 2014

December 18, 2013

Cuba Spotlight: Arthur Meyerson Dodges Potholes and Cliches

Arthur Meyerson led his first Cuba Cultural Exchange for Santa Fe Photographic Workshops in February 2012. So began his love affair with Cuba, and his desire to return as soon as possible.

What were your expectations the first time you went to Cuba?
Even though I’ve traveled to over 90 countries and to all seven continents, I wasn't sure what to expect! After all, in my lifetime, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to travel to Cuba. So, as I always do, I tried to avoid any preconceptions and left myself open to what I would find.

What makes Cuba special for photographers?
It's like photographing in a living museum, a place locked in a time warp. You find architectural interiors and exteriors ravaged by time. Exotic landscapes and seascapes. People that are joyful, resilient, and inventive, and a rich culture built on tradition. Translation: light and color and moments galore!  

How have your groups responded to their Cuban experience?
Most people come to Cuba with a strong sense of curiosity and added to that is the idea of traveling to a "forbidden place." To date, I'm not aware of anyone who hasn't enjoyed and benefited from the experience

What about your work?
That is a good question! From the moment I started photographing in Cuba I felt that I was creating a new body of work. Not just about the place and the people, but in the way that I was working. 

Is there anything you would change regarding your approach to working in Cuba?
At this time, I don't think so. This is a very interesting time to be creating images in Cuba. I'm trying to build a body of work that is consistent and honest, while maintaining a personal point of view. 

What’s a favorite moment from your trips to Cuba? 
I was walking the backstreets of Havana and came across some kids playing stickball. I mean, literally, baseball with a stick and a rolled up ball of tape hard enough to work as a ball. They asked me if I wanted to pitch and I couldn't resist. The hard part was, I wanted to pitch and photograph at the same time. Being right-handed (ball in the left hand and camera in the right hand) that must have been amusing to watch. But I did get one across the plate that the kid connected with and got the shot at the same time! Try that, Roger Clemens!

How does Cuba compare with other places where you've worked?
It's the only country where almost no one minds being photographed, and to some degree welcome it.

What's the most challenging aspect of working in Cuba?
Avoiding the photographic clichés and dodging the potholes!

What's your favorite image you've taken while you were on the island?
I always say that selecting a favorite image is like asking which is your favorite child. One photo moment that sticks out in my mind is when Tony Bonnano and I had been having a few drinks at The Floridita Bar one night. When we walked outside, I spotted this beautiful vintage red car that was glowing (inside and out) under the streetlights. I asked Tony if he wouldn't mind chatting with the owner of the car while I made a few shots from the other side of the vehicle with the owner inside and his back towards me. It's one of my favorite images, and I thank Tony and his "gift for gab" for helping to make it happen.

Given all the gulfs between the United States and Cuba, what do you see as the artists’ role in cultural exchanges?
As a photographer, I feel a desire to record what I find and to keep it true and honest. The photographs that we are making in Cuba now will have historical importance, and we as photographers need to honor that.

In Picturing Cuba you are taking the group into the countryside as well as Havana.  What do you hope to achieve by presenting your group with such contrast?
Last November, we did a day trip to Viñales, a beautiful area in the tobacco-growing region of Cuba, and it gave us just a taste of what we are hoping to experience by spending a couple of days there this time. I think that it’s going to provide an interesting contrast to life in Havana and hopefully will yield some wonderful images.

If you were to sum up your Cuban experience in one sentence, what would it be? 
Besides the wonderful people and culture, Cuba continues to be one of the best photographic experiences that I have ever had, anywhere.

Anything else you'd like to add? 
I have to tip my hat to Reid and Santa Fe Photo Workshops for making this dream come true!

If you’re dreaming of visiting Cuba join Arthur on his upcoming trip!

with Arthur Meyerson
March 11 - March 19, 2014

December 5, 2013

Cuba Spotlight: Jock McDonald Talks Tourist Veils and Cultural Bends

Jock McDonald is one of the lead photographers with the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops’ Cuba Program. His upcoming Portrait of Cuba in 2014 will mark his fourth time leading a Cuba trip for The Workshops. Jock first visited Cuba in 1990. Here he talks about how Cuba has changed, and what makes it so special for photographers.

How has Cuba changed in the years you’ve be going?
When I first went in 1990, Cubans were kept separate from the bubble of tourism. There was a lot of suspicion. You could rarely approach people on the street, but if you could, they were magnanimous. Now Cubans are in business with foreigners, buying buildings, putting in studios, carrying cellphones. But, as the Cubans say, “Same game, different face.”

What makes Cuba special for photographers?
I think that culturally there is a strong love of the camera. Cubans are very open and friendly, and they love to be photographed and involved. It’s colonial country, so the architecture is interesting. There is an elegant decay about Cuba and, to top it all off, there is the amazingly long and toffee-colored light that skips off the Gulf of Mexico. 

How has Cuba influenced your work?
The Cubans have influenced my life, not just my work. I’ve learned how friendship is dealt with and what it means to stand by someone, which they’ve done for me and I’ve done for them. My most recent love affair, though, is with the Cuban seas, photographing the waters around Cuba. The waters of the world are our original mother.

What's the most challenging aspect of working in Cuba? 
Having to set things up in advance and then you get there and everything changes. You start building expectations around a scheduled event, and then it suddenly changes, so you go to Plan B or Plan C. One of the things that has really helped in dealing with this challenge is that, through Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, we have built great relationships with people on the inside. 

What's your favorite image you've taken while you were on the island?
A farmer holding the hand of his four-year-old daughter. The daughter is standing up to her knees in mud, holding the rice. To me, it sums up Cuba and farming; these two generations standing on the land, holding onto each other, with the youngest holding the land. 

Given all the gulfs between the United States and Cuba, what is the artist’s role in cultural exchanges?
I think the artist’s role in any exchange is to propose another way of seeing something, at least in the visual arts. The job of the artist is to say, “How about it?” Whenever you have contact between cultures, you’re breaking down stereotypes. The role of a cultural exchange is to break down the barriers. I think that’s happening at a much more accelerated rate than twenty years ago. 

How have the people you’ve guided on these exchanges reacted to the Cuban experience? 
They have reacted in the most positive way. I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s life changing for most people who go. To see poverty and joy at the same time confuses Americans. They can’t imagine that you can have both at the same moment. That experience forces reflection and most people say that they will go back for a second or third trip, which speaks volumes. Cuba is like an onion; it’s a very layered and complicated place monetarily, politically, and culturally. I could sum it up this way: Cuba is a totalitarian dictatorship where I feel more free than in the “free world.” The freedom I feel there is attached to the lack of the busy work that we do in the West. The texting and the phones, and all the stuff that piles up is a lot of baloney at the end of the day. It’s unnecessary and gets in the way of us being with each other. We’re in trouble because of that. So I love to unplug. I call it a technological Shabbat. When I return from Cuba it’s like I have the cultural bends because everyone here wants to go so fast. ‘Why?’, I ask. 

Have you worked with any Cuban photographers?
I know most of them, and working with them is like having an insurance policy, having someone inside helping to facilitate and making me a known quantity. Their work is amazing. There’s this saying that is applies here, “The Cubans do so much with so little, and we do so little with so much.” I’ve been serious photo collector for about 20 years, but now the only photography I collect anymore is Cuban work. It’s of such a high caliber and is so thoughtful and provocative. This sounds harsh, but I’m bored with contemporary western photography. It seems to be repeating itself. The Cubans work is evocative and enticing and engaging. It speaks on a soul intelligence level. 

If you were to sum up your Cuban experience in one sentence, what would it be? 
The Cubans have opened their hearts to me, and let me have a glimpse the deeper waters of the human soul. 

Can you tell us more about Portrait of Cuba?
I think that the word “portrait” can be applied to anything, a child, a building, an ocean. What I always hope will happen is that we’ll get beyond the tourist veil that exists in Cuba. The idea is to get up close with the Cuban experience, using the frame of the portrait. 

Anything you'd like to add?
I really feel like it’s a privilege to work with Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, bringing people in and helping them to see life in a slightly different way. I find that really invigorating. 

Join Jock for his upcoming trip, and discover why Cuba is the place to unplug and rediscover your passion for photography.

with Jock McDonald 
January 21 - January 29, 2014

November 14, 2013

Spotlight on Cuba: Jennifer Spelman Talks Discovery

Spotlight on Cuba: Jennifer Spelman Talks Discovery

Jennifer Spelman is a key member of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops Cuba Program. Her upcoming trips in 2014 will mark her fourth year leading Cuba trips for The Workshops, and she finds that each visit provides her with some small shift of insight into what makes Cuba such a unique place.

When was the first time you went to Cuba? 
I went for the first time in 2001 through the Semester at Sea program. It gave me a taste of a place that, 10 years later, I would revisit with Santa Fe Photographic Workshops.

What were your expectations? 
It's easy to come to Cuba with a lot of preconceptions about its history and politics. Each trip I make into Cuba comes with some small shift of insight into what makes it such a unique place. The Cubans took a path through history that was full of all kinds of twists and turns. It's apparent in the obvious details like the old cars, but it's threaded through more subtle pieces of the culture, too. The Cuban people are ingenious and incredibly adaptable.  

What makes Cuba special for photographers? 
Cubans have this indomitable spirit. They dance with gusto, argue with passion over baseball, and are incredibly open about sharing their enthusiasm. When you combine that spirit with a stunning mix of architecture, set to the backdrop of the sea, you start to understand why it really is a photographer's wonderland.

How do your groups respond to the experience of Cuba?  
Cuba catches people by surprise. Our groups arrive expecting the old cars and beautiful cityscape, but the genuine nature of the people is usually a delightful discovery. The pictures sometimes become secondary to the discovery of the place, and the interactions and connections that occur.  

How has Cuba influenced your work? 
I've learned to work more fluidly and quickly. I’ve also been influenced by the Cuban photographers we work with, especially by their keen sense of anticipation and their playful use of color and theme.

What's the most challenging aspect of working in Cuba? 
Focusing: getting beyond the clichés and trying to find an original approach. I suppose that's true of working in any country, but in Cuba I feel it even more intensely.  

What's your favorite image you've taken while you were on the island? 
I’ll quote Imogen Cunningham, “What’s my favorite picture? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.” 

Given all the cultural gulfs between the United States and Cuba, what do you see as the artists’ role in exchanges? 
The news distributes facts and the artists distribute the sentiments of a country. Artists document the feelings of the people.

Have you worked with Cuban photographers? What was noteworthy about the experience? 
They all seem to have an incredible sense of moment and timing. It’s among the best I've ever seen, and to watch them photograph is an experience. They move fluidly and decisively, mixing irony, humor and other messages into the layers of their photographs. I have to say, it's exciting to see some of the photographers we work with at Fototeca de Cuba starting to get international exposure

In Picturing Cuba you are taking the group into the countryside as well as Havana.  What do you hope to achieve by presenting your group with such contrast?  
Hopefully, it will give them with a broader picture of life on the island. Life in the city of Havana versus some of the more rural areas is quite different. Both present incredible opportunities to connect with the people.    

Do you prefer Havana or the countryside? 
I like touching into both each time I go into Cuba. The contrast between the two accentuates both. I forget how bustling and busy Havana is until I take a trip out to a rural farm and time slows and the noise quiets.  

If you were to sum up your Cuban experience in one sentence, what would it be? 
Yes, more: soon.

Anything you'd like to add?
A quote from Ernest Hemingway quote. It’s so haunting to visit his old stomping ground on the island and I have really connected to his passion for the place. 

“He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach.”
- The Old Man and the Sea

Join Jennifer on her next available trip to Cuba and let this bequiling country catch you by surprise.

Picturing Cuba: Havana and the Countryside
with Jennifer Spelman
January 21 - January 29, 2014

October 30, 2013

Spotlight on Cuba: Tony Bonanno Paints a Picture

Tony Bonanno is one of the lead photographers with Santa Fe Photographic Workshops Cuba Program. His upcoming trips in 2014 will mark his fourth year leading trips to Cuba for The Workshops. Tony has felt an affinity for Cuba since childhood, and it shows in both his enthusiasm and his work. We talked with Tony about his Cuban experiences thus far.

When was the first time you went to Cuba?
The first time was in 2009, when I had the opportunity to launch a research project about Cuban artists, specifically Cuban photographers. Photography has always had a rich history in Cuba, and I wanted to work on a project where I could meet and discover Cuban photographers. What is their vision, their inspiration? What motivates them, what are they trying to express, and how do they do it? I developed an incredible respect and admiration for the photographers and artists that I met and got to know. And it is extremely helpful working with Nelson Ramirez of Fototeca de Cuba in Havana. That opened so many doors, getting to know that group and being a part of their impromptu salons in the hotels. In those salons you could meet the artists, and the artists would sell to those few Americans who were visiting, make some money and keep their art alive. One thing that distinguishes Cuban culture is the value and emphasis they place on art, dance, and music. You can’t help but be impressed. It’s such an important part of their lives and culture.

What were your expectations? 
I didn’t know what to expect. To be honest, it was a little scary since I didn’t know anything except what I saw here in the United States. Would I be watched? Or unwelcome because I was an American? Here was a country where people were struggling, would they take it out on me? (laughs) What I found was that everyone was incredibly gracious, incredibly warm, curious, and very pleased to meet me and talk with me. I learned very quickly that for the most part, the Cuban culture has close affinity with us. They like America and Americans, and many have relatives here. They were as gracious and as warm and as receptive as anyone could hope for.

How have the groups you've led responded to the Cuban experience?
When you go to Cuba with one of our programs you come back a changed person. It’s a very enriching experience, and you come away with a whole different idea about Cuba and the Cuban people, as well as your approach to photography. Our programs are people-to-people cultural exchanges and we go with the intent to learn about the Cuban people, to engage them. Our cameras and our passion for photography are the vehicles. We engage the Cuban people through our lens.

What makes Cuba special for photographers?
The subject matter is tremendous. Cuba is a country that’s been off limits for decades, and it’s relatively undiscovered and still frozen in time. Visually it’s like stepping back sixty years or more. There’s so much to take in and absorb—the food, the architecture, the kids playing stickball (baseball rules in Cuba) and diving off the piers, the tobacco fields. You have this amazing culture set against a backdrop of the old colonial cities.

And photography in Cuba is not a commercial or professional venture in the way we think of it here. In Cuba, it’s art, plain and simple. The work is beautiful, very high standard. How they do it without the modern equipment we have here, the stuff we take for granted, really impresses me.

Have these trips to Cuba influenced your work?
Absolutely. My work is definitely stronger now than five years ago in many ways. With Cuba, that’s to be expected because it’s so visually stimulating it gets your creative juices flowing. For a long time I specialized in editorial and corporate events. I was working for clients and they had requirements that I had to meet. Working in Cuba is completely different, and it has freed me up so much. You’re constantly challenged to up your game and hone your skills as a visual artist. You have to ask, does this photograph evoke what I want it to? How am I responding to the composition? What does it make me feel? It’s fantastic.

What's the most challenging aspect of working in Cuba?
You’re immersed in so much that you have to define your subject matter. Maybe it’s the kids playing stickball, the old buildings, the music, the dance—there are many themes and subjects and one of the challenges for all of us is that we want to do it all! I think the first trip you get a flavor of it all, and on subsequent trips you want to find something you have a strong connection to. 

Also, you have to be flexible. Our programs are not a pre-packaged kind of thing. It’s a photographic adventure in an incredible country that up until the last few years has been inaccessible. Sometimes we find opportunities that we can engage in something that was better than anything we could have imagine. Like the day we got to go backstage during a ballet practice and photograph. Obviously that was not on the agenda!

Do you have a favorite image you have made in Cuba? 
Here are three images that I like, and you can see more at www.cubafotografo.com.

If you were to sum up your Cuban experience in one sentence, what would it be? 
Cuba: a lovely island, long isolated, very beautiful, with an incredibly strong spirit that defines the Cuban people.

Join Tony on one of his upcoming trips, and experience why Cuba is the photographic adventure of a lifetime.

with Tony Bonanno
January 21 - January 29, 2014

with Tony Bonanno
January 28 - February 5, 2014

October 17, 2013

Cuba Spotlight: Elizabeth Opalenik Shares Impressions

Elizabeth Opalenik is one of the lead photographers with Santa Fe Photographic Workshops Cuba Program. Her passion for photographing dance, as well as the unique and authentic, has made Cuba a perfect fit for her talents. We talked with Elizabeth about her Cuban experiences thus far.

When was the first time you went to Cuba?
I went to Cuba for the first time in 2012, and I’ve gone a couple of weeks so far this year. I’m very lucky to do these trip, especially now. I can already see how much Cuba is changing; they’re starting to fix up certain buildings, that kind of thing. We know that it will continue to shift, so it’s great to be part of the group and see Cuba as it has been.

What did you expect to find when you went there?
I went with a very open mind. I’ve done a lot of traveling as a photographer, so I was prepared for most anything. When I first got there, I was impressed by the resourcefulness of the Cuban people, especially with how they made use of everything. We can all learn from that. And the people are also incredibly kind. I have felt safer there than in the States in some places. I’m also always impressed with how clean Cuba is—people are always out sweeping the streets, cleaning up in front of their places—there’s no garbage. I also love the old buildings, the decay. I sort of wish the world could stay decayed, but safe. Leave the façade and fix the interior.

What makes Cuba special for photographers?
The fact that it’s like a time capsule. Today, when you can get anywhere in the world so easily, we have to go further and further to find the time capsules. In Cuba most of the people you’re relating to have one or two fuzzy TV channels; they just don’t have the same access. And that [lack of access] is interesting to me. As we get older, many of us are looking back to find something that looks unique and authentic.

As a photographer, you focus on dance. How did that play out in Cuba?
I love working with dance, the feeling, the movement of it. And Cubans love to move! The dancers [there] work under extreme conditions, working out in the streets, in little plazas. Dance is made accessible for everybody in Cuba, I love that. I went to a ballet school for young children and it was packed! On weekends you always see dance events happening on the street. People get out to enjoy it- adults, kids, teenagers with red lipstick and flowers in their hair, running to do a performance. It’s so fun to watch them and be a part of that, to be part of more intimate moments rather than just being in an audience.

How do you capture that intimacy?
Getting to know the dancers is very important, but also tapping into our own stories; we’re interested in it because it’s in ourselves. You see the world as you are, not as it is. Everyone views it through their own set of eyes. On this next trip I want to take the dancers out of their regular spaces into other locations and work with them in those spaces. My goal for the program is to be out there with them.

Have you developed any relationships with dancers in Cuba?
We were watching a performance outside in a plaza, and there was a woman in a bright red shirt. Her name is DeAmi and she would stand up and perform. She was phenomenal. I mean, the sun broke on her every moment sort of a thing. I managed to meet DeAmi after the show, and we’ve since been in touch. I’m hoping that she’ll be there for this trip, but already she’s connecting me to many dancers down there. 

Given all the perceived distances between the US and Cuba, what do you think an artist’s role is in the political and cultural exchanges that take place?
I think the artist’s role, especially the photographer, is always documentation. It will always be your point of view, and in a given situation you end up seeking out your own truth. We go as artists, and my objective is to portray what’s there with the most honesty and integrity as I can by sharing and keeping an open mind. I think that what Santa Fe Workshops is putting together is great; it’s really a step in the right direction.

Do you have some favorite images from your last trip to Cuba?
I had an injury and I couldn’t go out with my regular heavy equipment.  Also, because it was my first time down there, I really wanted to be more involved with the people. So, for the first time ever, I used my iPhone! For me it was about the portraits and the spontaneity. Incidentally, I took a lot of stuff to give away so that I could elicit reactions. (Hint: if you give a teenage girl some nail polish she’s thrilled!) That was great for portraits. This trip I’ll be more focused on making images.

Did you notice any changes in your participants after the last program?
Absolutely. You always learn something. This year will be fantastic since many of the participants from my last trip will be returning. It’s about sharing and collaborating with like-minded people, and coming away with new ideas.

If you could describe the experience of Cuba in one sentence, what would it be?
It’s an amazing place filled with people who have a lot of integrity.

Join Elizabeth and discover Cuba for yourself.

Dance in Cuba 
with Elizabeth Opalenik 
January 28 - February 5, 2014

October 2, 2013

Spotlight on Cuba: Dustin Sammann Shares His Impressions

Dustin Sammann is a key member of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops Cuba Cultural Exchange Program. He is fluent in Spanish and, having traveled to Cuba multiple times, he has an intimate understanding and love for the people and culture of Cuba. Here he shares his thoughts and impressions of the country he has grown to love.

What are some of your favorite moments from your trips to Cuba?
That’s tough, there are so many. The first time you visit it’s a revelation. Cuba is another world and way of life, almost like going back in time to some alternative 1950’s. Also, although I’m fluent in Spanish, everything opened up when I was able to really speak the dialect of Cuba and able to strengthen the amazing connections I have. But, really, my favorite moment is when I met my girlfriend! (laughs)

Has Cuba changed your work? 
Before I started spending so much time in Cuba I worked in the studio a lot.  But now, having access to such a beautiful and complex world, I do much more documentary and street photography.  There’s just so much to see and experience. Also, most Cuban photographers do street and documentary work as there's virtually no commercial work available. Working with Cuban photographers—they really are world-class amazing—that’s improved my work a lot. 

Cuba is such a unique kaleidoscope. Every architectural style is available in Havana.  Also, the people are incredibly open, and you can make great portraits.  I’ve never been to a country where people are so open to having their picture taken.  Much more than other countries in Latin America.  There is a whole level of comfort and openness there. 

What are your impressions of the Cuban people? 
They’re a really open people, without all the physical and psychological boundaries we have. It’s really refreshing and I think it’s a result of a mix of things. Being isolated from the West for so long, and also just the way the Cuban people are. Tourism didn’t really exist in Cuba until the late 90’s, so it’s a very new phenomenon there.   

So you see Cuba changing? 
Cuba is changing quickly. You can see industry coming, the commercial world. I think it’s inevitable. I don’t know when it started, but in the last few years you can see it taking root. 

How have you seen people in your Cultural Exchange Program groups react to the experience of Cuba?

Great question. What I see is what happened to me when I first went there: Cuba is so visually stimulating and at first you’re totally overwhelmed. It’s fresh and strange and yet familiar at the same time. At first participants photograph everything, they want to capture it all, then they start to work with the rhythm of Cuba. And when they get that rhythm, their work really starts succeeding. It’s only a week, but it’s enough access that Cuba won’t leave you alone. In the best possible way I see folks having far more questions when they leave Cuba than they had when they arrived.

Seeing Cuba: Discovering the Culture and People of Cuba
with Dustin Sammann
December 3 - December 11, 2013

August 5, 2013

The Gifts of the Unexpected, with Holly Wilmeth

Holly Wilmeth was born and raised in Guatemala. As a freelance photographer, she has traveled to over 50 countries, and lived with nomad families in the Tibetan mountains as well as the Saharan desert. She is now based in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and Guatemala, and she will lead the Faces of Mexico: Environmental Portraiture workshop for us, October 20-25. We asked Holly to share a favorite portrait and its story. Here is her reply.

A couple of years ago I asked a friend of mine if she knew someone young and sweet-tempered, who also had lots of tattoos. The idea was to depict someone who on the outside could appear to be tough, but the true nature of him would be sweet.

Unexpectedly, the man she suggested turned out to have a gorgeous tattoo of a skull on his head. This young man was only 18 at the time I made this image. And yes, he is a sweetheart. The tattoo of the baby face on his left shoulder is of his son.

To begin to understand a city and a country through its people is also to learn about its culture. Discover the richness of colorful San Miguel de Allende, and its gentle people and vibrant culture, with resident Holly Wilmeth as your guide.

Faces of Mexico: Environmental Portraiture
with Holly Wilmeth
October 20 - October 25, 2013