This is the introduction to Havana: Light Beyond Vision.
“When first in the dim light of early morning I saw the shores of Cuba rise and define themselves from dark-blue horizons, I felt as if I sailed with Long John Silver and first gazed on Treasure Island. Here was a place where real things were going on. Here was a scene of vital action. Here was a place where anything might happen. Here was a place where something would certainly happen. Here I might leave my bones.”
It was November 1895 and a twenty-something Winston Churchill had just sailed into Havana harbor. More than a century later, Cuba and especially its capital city Havana still leave a profound first impression.
Havana deservedly ranks as one of the world’s great cities. A metropolis of 281 square miles with more than two million inhabitants, it possesses a unique combination of old world charm, Caribbean sensuality, and cold war tension. Off limits to U.S. citizens for decades, it is shrouded in mystery and in many ways, frozen in time. In other ways, it is completely modern.
A cab ride during my first visit there still serves as my go-to metaphor. Imagine a 1950’s era American car careening down Havana’s busy streets while blaring Reggaeton music. A glance at the dashboard reveals the source of the music to be a state-of-the-art Pioneer sound system streaming MP3’s off a thumb drive. That cab ride is Havana!
But so, too, is the stately cathedral, the colonial fortresses, the Soviet-era government block buildings, the crumbling neocolonial architecture, the skateboarders, the coffee stalls, the graffiti, the salt-swept Malecón, and a thousand other realities.
I am not trying to solve mysteries or explain the complicated history shared by our two countries. Instead, I embrace all the questions and complexity, try to capture them in my artistic medium, and toss them – metaphorically – into the trunk of my friend’s ‘56 Dodge convertible alongside my tripod and camera bag. I hope you enjoy coming along for the adventure.
We start, fittingly, with a water approach to Havana and see the harbor entrance at sunrise. The view must have been much like the one seen by young Churchill, or by the crews of the Spanish Treasure Fleet, or the pirates who put the young city to the torch in the 1500s. After a harbor sunrise, we visit the iconic Malecón, Havana’s ocean boardwalk.
From the Malecón we proceed, almost as if by foot, through the restored colonial-era neighborhoods of the Old Town before stepping outside the tourist bubble into bustling Central Havana. At the far side of Central Havana is Vedado, the nexus of Havana’s pre-revolutionary wealth. Vedado is followed by a trip across the harbor to the fortresses and neighborhoods of Casa Blanca and Regla.
The American author, Ernest Hemingway, occupies a place in Cuban culture that is close to national hero-hood. We explore his haunts in the fishing village of Cojimar and his home, Finca Vijia. We continue in Havana’s suburbs visiting Guanabacoa, Playa Santa Fe and a surprising town named Hershey that shares an unusual origin story with its sister-town in Pennsylvania.
Our journey ends with a little slight-of-hand in the tobacco valley of Viñales. Anyone with an understanding of Cuban geography, or even just a simple map, will rightfully call me out for grouping Viñales with Havana and its environs. I offer no excuse in asking the reader’s forgiveness but will let the photos speak for themselves. In the end, I could not bear leaving them out of this book.
All of the photographs in this book are color, infrared panoramas. A brief explanation of the technique precedes the acknowledgements for those who may be curious.