Retired teacher and professional photographer Stephen explored Cuba on his first Go Ahead tour, where the beauty and culture of the island nation came to life in front of his camera. Here are some of his memories from the awe-inspiring journey—and some of the vivid snapshots he captured along the way.
You enjoyed a fulfilling career as a teacher and photographer. Tell me a little about that!
I taught photography at Fayetteville-Manlius High School in New York for about 37 years, and I also worked as Syracuse University’s primary sports photographer for about 35 years. In doing that, I was able to photograph the Olympics in 1996. I also worked as a photographer for the United States Field Hockey Association, which took me all over the world.
What made you choose Cuba for your first Go Ahead tour?
I saw some images of present-day Cuba on television and thought, “I want to get there before it changes.” I think the country is at the start of a new era and I wanted to experience the stuck-in-time atmosphere. I also wanted to see the old classic cars.
Was there a specific moment when the essence of Cuba came to life for you?
When I first arrived and traveled from the airport to our hotel, I took a picture that captured classic cars, people strolling across the street, and a horse-drawn cart all in one frame. It was just three different worlds. That’s when I fell in love with the country. I kept thinking “Oh my god, look at this! This is Cuba.” I couldn’t push the shutter fast enough.
What was it like to get to know the many different sides of the country?
Traveling through Cuba is kind of like opening presents; you’re not quite sure what you’re going to see when you get off the bus, and from that standpoint, it’s very exciting. In the communities outside Havana, the locals take a great amount of care in maintaining the integrity of the old buildings. I loved the bright colors of the homes—they were spectacular. There were many fields and I often saw oxen and horses pulling wagons. Everything is a surprise. I was happy with everything I saw.
You had the opportunity to interact with many locals. What were they like?
I have never met so many people who are so openly friendly. Locals would be driving down the highway and they would see me with a camera standing by the side of the road and would wave or give me the thumbs up or the peace sign. It was pretty cool. Their smiles and sincerity were very uplifting. The Cubans have been in isolation for a long time due to the embargo but they’re still very positive. I got a strong sense that family and community are a very important part of their lives.
What surprised you about daily life in Cuba?
I was amazed by the extremely skilled mechanics who work on the country’s classic cars. They’re absolute magicians. They haven’t had paint or parts in Cuba for over 60 years yet these vehicles are still running. But, I also discovered that the locals are very used to waiting for opportunities. For example, I talked to one man who has been waiting a year and a half for a hot water heater. Another time, our Tour Director pointed out an ice cream stand that serves only one flavor per day, but people still line up for hours at a time because that’s what’s available. Things like that were really mind boggling.
What did you think of the island’s art scene?
It was just magnificent; I was taken aback by the quality and quantity of art. The ceramic tiles on the front of building were like nothing I’ve ever seen. I also noticed that the colors and stars of the Cuban flag are woven into everything, especially artwork.
So, national pride was evident in their art. Did that nationalism shine through in other ways?
Yes, in many ways. I found the Cuban locals to be very proud, patriotic people. I saw many war monuments, and when we visited the mausoleum where the iconic revolutionary leader Che Guevara was buried, our local tour guide was almost in tears. That’s how sacred Guevara is to many people in the country. Along the same lines, I was also impressed by the local musicians and dancers; they really gave their crafts their all. More than once, we had the opportunity to learn some dance steps, and the artists took the demonstrations very seriously. They were very proud of what they did and wanted to share it with the Americans.
What are some tips for travelers who’d like to try their hand at photography on tour?
Choose your equipment carefully: Before my tour, I sold off almost all my equipment and bought a small, lightweight camera. Anything else would have been too heavy to carry around. Plus, I try to blend in as much as possible and a smaller camera is much less intimidating to people. Putting them at ease is important.
Find inspiration: Don’t be afraid to look at other people’s work before you go on tour and get some ideas ahead of time. I’m constantly poring over old photo books or going to museums to look at people’s work. One photographer I admire is Steve McCurry, who works for National Geographic. Before he takes a photo of an individual, he spends time talking to them. I read that before I left and tried to do the same thing so that the locals were more comfortable with me.
Learn about your destination: Luck favors the prepared, so find out as much as you can about your destination before you get there, and know what’s on your tour itinerary. The more you know about what you’re going to photograph, the better your photos will come out.
When photographing locals, be respectful: My favorite thing to photograph is people, so before tour my daughter taught me how to say “May I take your photo?” I only had one person who shook their head out of all the people I asked. When I gave what few sentences I knew in Spanish and smiled at them afterwards, the locals always smiled back. They knew I was struggling with the language but were happy that I was making an effort to say something to them.
This was your first time traveling on a guided tour. What did you think?
I was extremely pleased. The Go Ahead staff members who I first talked to were very, very helpful when I called. Go Ahead was thorough and flexible, which made me feel comfortable right from the get go. I don’t eat fish, and they went out of their way to make sure I had another option during our included dinners. Not only that, but the prices were very good and I got a lot of bang for my buck. Go Ahead did everything they said they were going to do. Everything was perfect.
What was the best thing about traveling with a Tour Director?
Our Tour Director did a magnificent job. He was not only a big help with the language barrier, but he was also very pleasant and extremely knowledgeable. He told us about the company policies, but he had a sense of humor as well. Plus, I felt very safe.
What are you looking forward to next?
My next trip out of the country would be back to Cuba. If I could pack my bag today I’d be gone in a heartbeat. It’s not about the money—it’s about the memories you go away with. In the meantime, I’m printing and framing my photographs from tour. I’m now Facebook friends with several people from tour and hopefully I’ll hear of their future travels too!
What do you love about photography?
To me, photography is almost a religious experience. There are so many good things that can come out of it. You take from the craft, but you also have to give something back. That’s always been my attitude about it. I’m very fortunate to do what I do and hope to have a few more years left. You have to do what makes you happy, and for me, that’s having a camera in front of my face.