sara louise petty

Why Cuba? by Sara Louise Petty

I had wanted to visit Cuba for some time. I concentrate primarily on street photography and portraiture - I knew there would be a lot of great candid photographs to be had in Cuba. I was in the stages of planning a trip when I heard about the free Rolling Stones concert in Havana. I felt this would be a once in a lifetime trip, and was excited to witness the Cuban people experience their first Rolling Stones concert! It symbolized many things, but mostly it was the feeling of opening a huge door towards freedom to the outside world. 

I arrived in Cuba just as President Obama had left. Although Fidel Castro published a negative toned article (published whilst I was there) in the Cuban newspaper Granma regarding Obama's visit, this was not the sentiment of the Cuban people. Wherever I traveled within the island, the people were discussing Obama's visit with excitement and hope. There were news cuttings about it pinned to bulletin boards, it was a positive and exciting experience for the Cuban people and there was an overwhelming sense of hope for normalized relations, which would bring new tourism and business opportunities for Cubans and their families. 

Aside from the concert, my main focus of the trip was to document the people of Cuba as they are now, living on an island on the brink of change. Knowing that many a photographer had documented the worn down destructed houses, the 50's cars and old Habana, etc I wanted to really hone in on the people. I also wanted to find interesting scenarios and locations that were not overly exposed. I decided to focus on Alamar, a series of communist looking structures on the outskirts of Havana and the people who live there. I focused on the children, playgrounds and the 'youth centre' where the young people of the housing structures congregate to date, socialize and use the wifi. (Wifi in Cuba is hard to find, and people must pay as they go, using cards)

In addition to Alamar - I spent a lot of time in Centro Habana, where I found it was more authentic and certainly a true taste of how the people of Cuba really live. 

I had heard of the National Art Schools, through my architect boyfriend at the time John Wender, which are now named the Instituto Superior de Arts (ISA), and wanted to visit these interesting structures from an architectural standpoint. The schools were founded by Fidel Castro & Che Guevara in 1961 in the early years after the revolution, and lay unfinished and abandoned as two of the three main architects fell out of favor with the government over arguments the structures were not compatible with the revolution. These structures were organic, arched, curved and (according to the guard who has worked on the property for over 30 years) were conceived and inspired by the womanly body with curves, domes and tunnels. The structures are in complete stark contrast to the blockish and conformed shapes of other structures built around that time, such as the monotonous square buildings of Alamar. The National Art Schools lay unfinished for many years but are now recognized as national monuments. During the 70's they became the ISA and underwent rehabilitation, becoming a functioning art school with notable faculty such as the sculptor José Villa Soberón.

I wanted to visit, photograph and observe people in their natural environment, so along with the ISA I decided to visit a local boxing ring in Havana. One of the vendors who sold the most delicious cold, fresh coconuts knew of a retired boxer who had won several titles who frequented a local ring. He introduced us and he took me to the ring. There I found local boxers, both male and female, both training and socializing. I was very interested in the female boxers in particular. 

When people think of Cuba, they have a vision of old 50's cars (in Cuba referred to as 'almendrones'), glistening beaches, a hot climate, the home of Ernest Hemingway, beautiful people and fun salsa dancing. Of course they know of the embargo and how difficult is seems to visit, but until you are actually in Cuba, and away from the touristic hot spots you can't appreciate just how tremendous the effects of the embargo, collapse of the Soviet Union and loss of USSR financial support were for the Cuban people. The island was plunged into economic hardship and isolation.  I witnessed much poverty, worn down crumbling houses, rationed food, lines around the block for potatoes (on the day that potatoes are freely available), food markets with barren shelves, with food stuffs reminiscent of 1940's wartime such as powdered milk and canned meats. Here you do not see the glossy 50's cars or the pastel colored buildings, you see the 1980's russian cars such as the VAZ, falling apart, and you see meat stores filled with flies. You see how incredibly stifled the Cuban people have been, and how resourceful they are given the fact they have been denied so much by their communist government. You see an incredible amount of hope, faith and anticipation for the prospects of the future. The Cuban people are hard workers, and are eager to work and prosper. This is an exciting time for Cuba, a country on the threshold of monumental change. 

xoxo

Sara Louise Petty

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Waiting for The Rolling Stones by Sara Louise Petty

The crowd was gathering. The excitement was tremendous. The stadium (was not a stadium as we know it, more of an oversized outdoor football field) was empty with only a few guards. We wondered how they were really set up for a concert of this magnitude. People had traveled from far and wide for this FREE concert. The Cuban people had traveled from all over the island, and I met people from Sweden, the USA, UK, France and Peru alone in my little circle of people I became very close with (close quarters for 11 hours plus). 

A few images from the crowd. 

xoxo

Sara Louise Petty

Sara Louise Petty & the Mamiya by Sara Louise Petty

Once I unpacked my bag, and had a very important shower (I did not get to shower in Mexico, after being chased by dogs; more on that story later) and threw on some clothes, unpacked my Mamiya 645, loaded some film and left the building. I snapped my first shot, not far outside my Casa. Disaster struck. About a week before my trip I took out my Mamiya 645 and it would not engage the shutter, in fact, the mirror was stuck. I took it to the Camera Doctor in NYC (yes, there really is a Doctor for Cameras, shutterbugs!) and alas the poor baby, who had taken so many incredible images for me was dead. I actually think I cried. But then survivor mode kicked in followed by Ebay and I managed to secure a Mamiya 645AFDII in pristine condition that arrived in the knick of time for my trip. The only worry, would it actually produce images for me! I mean, going on a trip with a FILM CAMERA that you haven't even tested or ran a roll of film through is the biggest risk I ever took (second to getting back together with my ex!). Unfortunately as Mick would NOT sing, Time was NOT on my side. I had to take a risk. I put my hands to God and put all my faith into this shiny new Mamiya that it would produce beautiful images for me!  

So, within seconds of walking out of the building. Snap. Crunch. Zing. Silence. Film was not advancing. ERROR in bold capital letters blinking instead of where my 2 should be. You know that sinking feeling when you feel you lost your keys/phone/wallet/child? Well, it was that feeling. The feeling your heart just sank into your bowels. I'm in Cuba, CUBA, I'm in Cuba and my camera doesn't work. I felt the tears start to run down my cheeks and I rushed back up the stairs and into my room at the Casa (which I still accidentally have the key for, sorry Abel!) and sat on the bed for a second to compose myself. This could not be happening to me. Could it? I thought the black cloud was lifting, I was happy with the love of my life and all was good in my world. But now, now, this?  Ok, calm down SLP, the worst case scenario I'll shoot my Nikon digital. That would not be the end of the world. Somehow to me, that seemed like the end of the world. See, my process is all about Film photography. Savoring the slow moments, savoring the fact I had to ration my shots, that I couldn't see them in preview, that I have NO IDEA if they are really going to come out great - I just always have this amazing feeling of hope and faith when I shoot film. I feel like I got it, I feel like I caught the person at the right moment - between blinks - between movements - but still, there is that 'you never know' feeling which is so thrilling to me. When my scans come back from the lab you bet my heart skips a beat just like I had laid eyes on beautiful boyfriend for the first time (now Ex). I would run to my computer, hit download and can barely contain my excitement to view them for the first time. I swear, it's better than sex and it lasts longer. 

As I sat on the bed, wondering what this was karmic punishment for, I thought... hmmmm. What if I try another lens? The 55mm was actually my favorite lens for my street portraits, it's the equivalent to a 35mm in Digital, which is a little wide but I could get nice and close. It isn't a true portrait lens, that would be the 80mm which is like a 50mm in digital. So, you know, I just so happened to have an 80mm in my bag. I almost didn't pack it, because I rarely use it, but I actually brought a few lenses on this trip including a Macro manual focus. I switched to the 80mm and lo and behold - it started working again! I was so happy, still extremely emotional and also very very nervous (was this a faulty camera, would it do it again, would my film even come out?). As I said earlier, I just had to have faith (George Michael said so too). 

I composed myself and walked over to the Malecon where a passer by took my photo (very windswept) and I walked on down to the nice view of the Fort. 

xoxo

Sara Louise Petty

  Sara Louise Petty at Malecon, Havana, Cuba.

Sara Louise Petty at Malecon, Havana, Cuba.

  Almendrones on the Malecon, Cuba. 

Almendrones on the Malecon, Cuba. 

  The Fort, Cuba. 

The Fort, Cuba. 

Arriving in Centro Habana - Sara Louise Petty by Sara Louise Petty

Cuba was a very last minute trip. I had maybe a couple of weeks notice. I had a friend who was going to the free Rolling Stones concert who suggested I should come for the experience and photographic opportunities in Cuba. I decided to go very last minute, and of course it was near to impossible to find a place to stay in Havana at such short notice and at the same time thousands of people were also looking to travel to Cuba for the concert. I used Airbnb which seemed to be the most popular way to find accommodations in Cuba. Forget a hotel, they were all booked. Airbnb was just as daunting, and I had my booking canceled many times. I was mistakenly only trying for Old Havana. In the end, to secure a decent place to stay I booked a room at a small Casa Particular in Centro Habana. This was a great decision. This area was more gritty, more the real Cuba, than the more touristic Old Havana. 

We arrived at the airport, exchanged some money and then took a taxi. As I was not in Old Havana, Centro Havana was the first drop off. The Casa Particular was on San Lazaro which was a great location, just blocks from the waterfront (Malecon) and fort, and a 10-15 minute walk to Paseo del Prado, a nice pedestrian walkway which leads into Old Havana. I love to walk (even in extreme heat!) so this was nice I could walk into town to meet my friends. I also used the bike taxis which were hit or miss. I was price gouged many times, but learned quickly how to haggle. I noticed the bike peddlers would see my camera, and that I was a woman alone and try to give me a very high price - so I learned to just say no and walk away, and they quickly came down in their offer. I don't mind paying a fair rate, but not be gouged because I am simply a tourist. 

So, I checked into my room at the Casa, and was amazed by how nice it was (compared to many options I was presented with at the last minute). I had my own room and private ensuite. A king bed, although very hard, was welcome. The room was an addition built on the rooftop of the Casa which I had to climb narrow steps to access (not easy with luggage). The buildings around were crumbling, this was the first thing that struck me about Cuba. Dilapidation. Poverty. Faded splendor, for I could imagine just how beautiful this place looked when a booming tourist destination, with shiny new American cars (they are called Almendrones in Cuba) and frosted pastel painted buildings. Now those pastels have become tinted with greige, and crumbling before us. The people of Cuba live in desperate poverty and simply do not have the money, nor supplies to fix up these once glorious buildings. 

 View from my Casa Particular on San Lazaro, Centro Habana

View from my Casa Particular on San Lazaro, Centro Habana

 Laundry hanging on a terrace in Centro Habana, the view from my Casa. 

Laundry hanging on a terrace in Centro Habana, the view from my Casa. 

 San Lazaro Street Scene

San Lazaro Street Scene

CUBA BOUND! by Sara Louise Petty

Sara Louise Petty goes to Cuba to see what's happening over there. In an exciting time for the Cuban people, President Obama had just left the country, and the Rolling Stones were holding a free outdoor concert.