Come the Next Revolution

You know that rising, panicky feeling you get when the penny suddenly drops: time is running out, the clock is ticking against you? Well that’s exactly how I felt, last year in December, watching Obama announce on TV that he was going to normalise US relations with Cuba. I knew then that I had to get there quickly, before the island was overrun by hordes of visitors and infested by the usual global, culinary suspects.

Fast-forward six months and look at me, all-conquering, riding into Havana, languishing in the bouncy, back seat of a powder blue, vintage car. I couldn’t help pinching myself, the vision beyond was film set perfect: sunshine, swag, Chevrolets, and Che.

Later, over obligatory mojitos, in a refined, old town bar, my Havana Shangri-La crash-landed. Against the backdrop of an innocuous ballad, a beetroot-faced couple, smarting from the sun, performed an awkward salsa, colliding and giggling; idle waiters nodded in silent encouragement. “The Police arrest us when we walk with foreigners,” Juan our ‘guide’ blurted out unceremoniously, “we are not free, sometimes I hate this place.” He took a frugal sip of his cocktail, replacing the tall glass on the gleaming table, carefully lining up the edge on the embossed coaster. Overhead the ceiling fans whirled reassuringly like the spinning blades of a hovering helicopter safely descending to earth.

Breaking from my reverie, I struggled to reconcile the inherent contradiction of Juan’s outburst. Of course we all knew about communism, manifestos, escapees and ration books. But hey, wait a minute, what about unparalleled health-care and education, music, legendary pasión, ballet and boxing? How could one clumsy outburst have the power to dispel the intoxicating version of Cuba libre branded, packaged and exported like a global commodity that some of us had swallowed?


The rest of the trip unearthered further sobering truths. Leticia a warm hearted, open Afro Russian waitress explained casually how on the surface Havana was open for business, but the scarcity of goods and high commodity prices made private enterprise a real challenge. “We don’t really know what happens on the outside,” she went on to add. With monthly wages averaging US$ 25 (if you were lucky enough to have a job), updating a facebook status was a luxury few could afford at up to US$ 5 a pop for one-hour restricted Internet access. Lighting a cigarette and taking up the offer of a chair, she provided an entertaining, insightful and engaging narrative of her life without any hint of soliciting pity or a handout, “I can afford a beer, but not everyday… little things make us happy, the beach, family and friends; but we don’t know about the future…”

And that seemed to be the enduring refrain, living life in the moment, holding out hope, trepidation, restlessness, sometimes even apathy about the terrain ahead. For Habeneros and Cubans in general, freedom, prosperity and unfathomable opportunities beckon within touching distance, but for whom and at what cost in an uncharted Nuevo Cuba.

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Travel Images: To Pay or not to Pay? Is that the Question?

Back in November, I was so pleased to see my travel portrait of a little indigenous Panamanian girl “Hidden Smile” featured in the UK edition of Digital Camera magazine. This got me thinking about the story behind the shot and reopened the can of worms surrounding paying for travel images.

"Hidden Smile." Kuna Yala, Panama

“Hidden Smile.” Kuna Yala, Panama

After a hectic schedule in Panama City, it was great to spend quality time in Comarca de Kuna Yala on the Caribbean coast, with a close friend living in Panama. After a couple of days of much needed rest and relaxation, we headed out to visit the indigenous Kuna people on a nearby island. Fast-forward two hours and I’m crouching in the shade dehydrated, dispirited and distracted, scanning through the hand full of mediocre images on my camera. The only light relief is in the form of a curious little girl, with mischief in her eyes, daringly shuffling closer and closer to me.

The Kuna have successfully commercialised access to their culture and why not? They have a commodity that tourists are willing to pay for. Not every one agrees though; many professional travel photographers are vehemently against paying for travel images for a host of reasons: you don’t get ‘authentic’ images; cash for photos ‘spoils’ it for the next guy; and the local culture gets distorted/‘westernised’ when cash changes hands. I question this attitude. If you are shooting travel portraits that enhance your portfolio, win you work and increase your profile, is it fair to expect to always get away without paying? Does handing out pens or notebooks compensate more often than not, disadvantaged communities looking to feed their families and educate their children? When you do the maths, what the old Njemps fisherwoman in Baringo, Kenya, is asking for is equivalent to the cost of a cappuccino back home.

 Leg beadwork:Kuna Yala, Panama

Kuna Yala, Panama

Of course the payment dynamic varies depending on whether you’re dealing with a full-blown commercial operation in the Omo valley, southern Ethiopia; or a random encounter with a lone rice famer in Ubud, Bali, who’s just after few coins. Admittedly, it is incredibly challenging to shoot ‘natural’ portraits when you’re at the sharp end of a hard-nosed business transaction, which explains my frustration on this particular trip. In the ideal world we all want to make images resulting from genuine connections, where there is no expectation of payment or feelings of exploitation. However much we want this though, can never justify disparaging canny entrepreneurs who expect to be paid for being on the other side of our cameras.

What do you think?

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