“Our man in Havana”

Cuba October 2017 (7 photos)
This is part 2 of my Cuba 2017 photo series.

I was walking along a narrow street in Habana vieja (Old Havana) when I came across these guys playing chess on the street. People playing chess, chequers and dominoes on the street is not an uncommon sight in Cuba. The guy on the right playing chess saw me with my camera approaching him. Our conversation in English went as follows:

Him: No. Please don’t take my photo.
Me: Why not?
Him: I’m a spy and I don’t want my identity revealed.
Me: Who do you work for?
Him: The CIA.
Me: Hey, I’m with the KGB. I’m supposed to take your photo!

So I took his photo. We all had a good laugh. I shook his hand before walking away. They call that, “Detente”.

Perhaps you’ve read the novel of “Our Man In Havana” or seen the 1959 movie starring Sir Alec Guinness. Basically it is about a vacuum cleaner salesman who masquerades as an MI6 agent in Havana until the joke backfires and the situation heats up considerably. I thought it was funny that this guy was a “secret agent” like me. πŸ™‚

“Taking it easy”

The photo above is more like my usual street photography. A random moment caught spontaneously.


Or finding a background and waiting for someone to come by.

But as evidenced by the conversation at the start of this post, one can’t help but be drawn in by the friendliness of most Cubans. Most people will call out “Hola!” to you and that’s enough to start a conversation.

So as an experimental process I decided to take a more interactive approach to my street photography. Given that people can see you approaching on the narrow streets, and the camera makes you stand out anyway, this was a natural progression for me.

“Guys hanging around a doorway”

I asked these guys if I could take their photo. They nodded and fortunately for me they kept their pose.

Then I went up close to some people and asked to take their portrait. I used a 28mm prime lens for most of my shots.

“Photography made easy: place head between arrows”

After a while, I became quite confident asking strangers if I could take their photo, even inside offices and shops.

“Hasta la victoria siempre”

I asked the guy above if I could take a photo of him with the wall as a background. He agreed and went back to work.

On several occasions I started conversations with people and then got invited into their house.

“Puedo tomar te foto, por favor?”

They got to practice their English with me and I got to practice my Spanish with them.

I think my experiment with interacting with the locals prior to photographing them was a success. It was a lot of fun as well. There were some good laughs along the way. I’m glad I learnt some Spanish before going to Cuba (and Mexico).

Stay tuned. I’m your man in Havana.

This is part 2 of my Cuba 2017 photo series.

Click here for part 1 of my Cuba 2017 photo series.

This is part 2 of my photo series of my 2017 trip to the USA, Mexico, Cuba, and Canada.

Leica Etcetera, Photography Etcetera

Our Man in Havana


102 thoughts on “Our Man in Havana

  1. These are very beautiful photos, Draco. The more so, because your good hearted connection with the subjects shows through. And now we can connect too with your connections. Virtuous synergy. Bravo!

  2. Wow! I love your way of taking pictures! And I’m a great favorite of street photography too. Your portraits are full of life and meaningful, much more than any “artificial” arranged situation one often sees on so many portraits…

  3. I really enjoy seeing your photos, Draco. Cuba is a beautiful place to shoot photos — I love all the colors. Not sure I am brave enough to visit (yet)… (Well, you know how much I love your photos. It’s difficult to comment each time with same “WOW” every time πŸ˜‰
    Have a wonderful day.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Helen. Honestly, I felt safer in Cuba than I did in San Francisco. πŸ™‚ It’s definitely worth a visit, perhaps as part of one of the accredited people-to-people tours.

  4. I just loved the pics.
    Yes, just hanging around….Normale! We envy them so much, right?
    I have a recommendation for you, a cartoon for grown-ups; if you didn’t watch it, you’re sure gonna love it. It’s called Chico & Rita. Fernando Trueba is one of the writers and he knows his job.

    • Yes, just “hanging around” is something I love doing. It implies a certain carefreeness to life.

      Thanks for the recommendation. I just watched the trailer on youtube. It looks very interesting and will help to satisfy my craving for all things Cuba. πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

  5. I agree with Tish, your heart connects to the subject. All your cool captures of their expressions, gestures, smiles, … tell great stories of their daily lives, culture, and fun moments. Learnt their language before you go, awesome, Dragon! πŸ™‚

    • Thank you very much, Amy. I thought it would be useful to learn a bit of the language and bought one of those courses on CD. It was very helpful and useful. People seemed genuinely happy to talk with me. And to think that several years ago it was actually illegal for Cubans to talk to tourists (according to an article I read).

    • Thank you, Juan. I’m happy I can show you your own country through the eyes of a foreigner. Gracias, Juan. Estoy feliz de poder mostrarte tu propio paΓ­s a travΓ©s de los ojos de un extranjero.

  6. Every one seems quite comfortable with the interaction and a great way to break down barriers. Did any one say no, or ask for a donation? Great photos capturing both the character of the people and the atmospheric surroundings

    • Most people I had eye contact with would say Hola to me and if they didn’t, I’d say Hola to them. That doesn’t happen here in Sydney.

      Several people didn’t want to be photographed and I respected that. A couple even came up to me wanting to be photographed. To some people I freely gave money if they were nice enough to tolerate me getting a few different angles for my shots, even though they didn’t ask for money. In fact, most didn’t ask for money. Some made it clear they’d allow themselves to be photographed for a dollar and I usually declined, unless they were interesting like the cowboy I met in a barber shop with his horse tied up outside the shop. πŸ™‚ Photo to come later.

      Then there are people who perform in costume for money, as a way of making a living. Some I paid.

      Of course there are beggars who’d chat you up first before asking. I usually declined paying them anything.

      • Always interesting the different response to photography. A smile and a greeting can go a long way to melting the ice. The money thing is a bit like the Aborigines we met in Alice, some just come up and blatantly ask for money. One memorable encounter we had a couple walk with us all the way back to our accommodation then just as we said good bye, after having a really interesting conversation about their culture they asked for $10. Jack gave him his hat and told him he wouldn’t give money as it may be used for the wrong things…

  7. Well whatever you did it obviously worked well. Did you never feel uneasy walking down the street with your camera? I’m sure I would have felt a bit nervous. Love the man in the office, but all those buildings look to be in dire need of repair.

    • Thanks, Jude. Even walking through the very rundown areas, I felt very safe with my camera around my neck. People just wanted to know where I was from. A few beggars would approach but once I said “Sorry, no” they’d just walk away.

      There’s little development in Cuba because of the US embargo. Most buildings are in a state of disrepair and I read somewhere that 1 building collapses in Havana each day or two. Many of the restaurants I ate in had parts of walls and ceilings collapsed. Practically every building has peeling paint. They’re stuck in the 1950s by the US embargo with little money for maintenance. Most cubans earn state salaries of about USD$25 per month.

      • I understand that it is a very poor country, which is why I would be worried, but people are obviously very friendly. I know people (who don’t live there) want to see it before it changes, but I guess the people who do live there can’t wait for things to improve!

        • You’re perfectly correct. We don’t want it to change because Cuba is in a unique situation, but we don’t have to live in those conditions. They need change but who knows how that will affect them.

  8. In many of these photos, it’s the facial expressions that really stand out for me. The gentleman between the arrows, the woman in her kitchen, the three fellows standing about the doorway. Such lovely images!

    • I didn’t ask any of them to pose. Once they accepted, I just composed and photographed. I think their genuine character is showing through. I got a lot out of this experience and trip.
      Thanks, Krista.

  9. These are great shots Lignum, and I really enjoyed reading this post. You’re right about this doesn’t happen in Sydney, which is another reason why I love to escape to the Blue Mountains, where the people are happier and friendlier.

  10. Again: awesome pic from my city. They are my people. I know is easy connect with cuban people. It has been a long time isolated. Now we are eager for this kind of connection. We want know the world and another people.

  11. I love hearing your experience as a photographer and how you ask to take the photo – I often think about that when I look at street photography. Your photos are beautiful, too.

  12. LB says:

    Oh, I am so glad I found time to drop in! I knew you had plans to travel but didn’t know the destination. Cuba! How incredible!
    Your street photography is excellent and I especially love the one of the guys hanging out in the doorway.

  13. You sure are the man in Havana Mr Draco! I’m envious that you felt so comfortable taking pics of strangers. Green! Love your photos my friend, great post .. have a wonderful holiday!!! πŸ˜ƒπŸ˜ƒ

    • Thanks very much, Julie. Sadly, the holiday is over and I’m reminiscing via my photos. You know I’m tardy in posting my photos, just like someone else I know. πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚
      Time to consider the next holiday location. Any ideas? πŸ˜‰

  14. Wow I love these!!! I particularly like the one of the lady in her kitchen. The items on the top shelf on the left are probably the sum total of her china cabinet display items. We have so much here and don’t appreciate it. It makes me sad and angry at the same time 😦

  15. It is amazing how warm, welcoming and trusting the locals are, even letting you take photos in their offices and inside their homes. They don’t seem to live and be around the most flashiest, modern conditions. It seems like they have nothing to lose by being so open…and simple – like you said in your comment to Norma, some people value friendships more. They do not seem like a shy bunch at all. Perhaps some of them have been through a lot, done it rough, and just appreciate being treated like another person.

    • The conditions in Cuba are tough. One of my hotel rooms had mould in the ceiling. One of the homestays I stayed at had only intermittent hot water. Many houses are crumbling. But the people have overcome and adapted. People talk daily to their neighbours. Almost everyone has a bit of white and black background in their ancestry. Racism doesn’t exist as far as I could tell. We can learn much from them.

      They understand the importance of tourism and are inquisitive about the rest of the world. You’re right, they have nothing much to lose by being open with foreigners.

      • It didn’t sound like the typical 5-star tourist experience you had, but 5-stars in such a different way. Sounds like Cuba puts up with what they got, and they probably are more content than quite a lot of us living in the Western world. Looking forward to the rest of the trip.

        • Actually the accomodation was better than I expected. Experiencing Cuba was the real goal and I feel I did that as best as I could as a tourist. Cubans have my admiration for their endurance in tough conditions.

    • You’re going to have a great time, especially if like me, you have a few mojitos every day. πŸ™‚ The weather should be perfect that time of year too.
      Thanks for looking. I’m not the most prolific blogger around and it will take me a while to get most of my Cuba posts up. But it will happen.

  16. Hehe, that was a good morning chuckle. You were doing it alright. I love the man in green from the group photo. Such colour coordination. πŸ™‚ All of them exude pride to be in your photo. Great going!

  17. These portraits remind me of top quality magazine pictures I’ve seen over many years… very striking. Amazing that people invited you into their homes…. wow!!

    Please keep taking people in that way it’s excellent!! πŸ™‚

    • Thank you very much, Suzy. I felt comfortable taking these photos because the locals made it easy for me. I may have a harder time trying to do this in Sydney, or any other large western city.

  18. I think you have just highlighted one of the reasons I am so hesitant to photograph people, although I love your portraits: so full of life, richness and colour! I would have such a tough time asking them permission. And I don’t feel right just taking photographs without asking.

    Next time I find myself in this situation, I will take a deep breath, remember you and perhaps take a chance.

    • If they are interesting, wait for the right moment and ask, without high expectations. If they say no, no harm done. If they say yes, you’ll feel good and have a photo.

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