Rad A. Drew Photography: November 2015

Continental Divide at Dawn

Continental Divide at Dawn
Continental Divide at Dawn

Monday, November 2, 2015

Cuba: The Magic of Dawn

Editor's note; This post was first published in 2015 and has been updated for repost in January 2017. 

Since this was written two years ago, many changes have occurred in Cuba and travel to Cuba. In just a few days, our group will for the first time fly on commercial airlines (American Airlines) to Havana, instead of a charter flight out of Miami. 

Today, we no longer stay in the fancy hotels when we travel, but in privately owned apartments and Casas. Tourism has grown and one sees more tour busses throughout the city. 

As a photographer, the opportunities still abound. As a group leader   I've learned to fashion our itinerary to avoid some places altogether, and to visit others at times when tourists are not present. I've learned to have a plan, but to be flexible because one never knows when an opportunity for something special will occur. On our my last trip in November 2016, our group was able to acquire tickets to the Cuban National Ballet and we were flexible enough in our schedule to allow for this unique opportunity. You can read about that experience here.

In spite of these changes, each trip has been better than the last. I have no expectations, but I hope that this trend continues with trip number 7.

If you'd like to join me, our next trip is scheduled for November 2017. Learn more here.

Boy with Birds, Trinidad
Before they're even making coffee in the new wing of the Park Central Hotel in
Havana where I'm staying, I'm up and out the door. It's 6:30 AM. Dark. Quiet. The
light from a few lamps and passing cars is reflected in the street, wet from the
night's rain. The slumbering city begins to make morning sounds, and I walk on
without expectation, but filled with anticipation and excitement about what I know
this morning will bring.

At this hour the only people I see are a street sweeper whose palm-branch broom
makes scratching sounds on the marble as he sweeps along the Prado, and a few
workers, silent silhouettes, walking in the twilight with deliberation toward their
day job.

My anticipation comes from knowing that within the next half hour Havana will
transform itself from a dark, quiet, sleeping giant, to a light, vibrant, gritty, animated
city, rich with life and photographic opportunity.

At the curb is a pile of garbage, its redolence muted by the recent rain. The expanse
over the city begins to turn a deep blue at the skyline's edge. The waking continues:
a splash-clunk! as a car hits a rain-filled pothole, footsteps on wet pavement, a horn
honks in the distance. The deep blue now shows pink at the edges of the skyline.

An old man pushes a cart with a white canvas bag full of bread, his hawking call,
"PAAAANNNN," piercing the morning's peace.  Somewhere a rooster crows, and
crows again. A diesel engine coughs to a start. A man dressed only in his boxers,
brushes his teeth from a second story balcony and spits over the rail.

More cars rattle through the streets, many made in Detroit, 60 years ago! Others are
rickety Russian models from the 80's. Diesel fumes assault my nostrils. Slowly, like a
giant waking from a deep sleep, the city lumbers to its feet as the brightening dawn
spreads over Havana.

One by one, Cuban men, women, and children appear in windows and doorways of
homes that open onto the sidewalk. There is no buffer for privacy. As I walk down
the street, I'm self-consciously aware that I am practically standing in people's
homes. Briefly, I feel like an interloper.

The morning is in full motion. People step out onto the street, and now there is the
frequent "bueno' dia'" exchanged among passersby, with the dropped "s"
characteristic of Cuban Spanish. The sidewalks fill with street vendors, men and
women on their way to work, and students on their way to school.

By now, I'm actively shooting, sometimes surreptitiously, and sometimes asking,
exchanging a bottle of skin lotion, a hair tie, or a pen in gratitude for a photo. I find
that these intimate portraits are best when I take the time to engage my subject.
Even the simplest exchange will break the ice and allow us to learn a little about
each other. When this happens, the photo opportunities are genuine human
interactions instead of impersonal transactions.

Children, neatly dressed in the traditional Cuban school uniform, appear on the
streets. The high school students in blue uniforms walk alone, in small groups of
friends, or as boy and girlfriend, they linger intimately in a doorway for a morning

The middle school students in their gold uniforms walk animatedly, unencumbered
by guardians. A surprising number today are as occupied with cells phones as kids
in any city.

The elementary students, in their burgundy uniforms, walk quietly, hand-in-hand,
with a parent or grandparent. Too young to be embarrassed by an adult, these little
ones show their adoration without reservation.

The high number of men who visibly play an adoring, nurturing role with their
children strikes me as surprising in a country with a reputation for its macho
culture. For the Cuban man, there seems to be no shame in nurturing children and
no stigma that it's "women's work" alone.

This is my favorite time to be on the streets of Havana, or Trinidad, for that matter.
Each city has its unique vibration, tone, best discovered in the waking hours at
dawn. It's in these early hours that each city reveals the most intimate aspects of its
personality and culture.

The following images were made (many with my iPhone) while leading a group of
photographers from the Estados Unidos. Most were made while roaming Havana or
Trinidad in the hours around dawn. If you're interested in experiencing the
photographic delights of Cuba, learn more about my November 2017 trip here: http://bit.ly/2cbeOsL_RAD_Cuba_2017.

Streets of Havana
Boy Minds the Market in Trinidad

Butcher Sharpens His Knife 

Man in the Morning, Havana

Door, Trinidad

Saviors, Trinidad

Cactus in a Lard Can

Birds: A Family Affair

Working Man