The fact that you are on the Internet right now puts you into one of the most fortunate groups of people on earth. If you’re reading this blog post on a device you own you move even further up the ladder of privilege. Have a regular roof over your head? Have you had a meal today that wasn’t part of a monthly ration of food? OMG. Go polish your crown because you are living like a king.
When I spend time in Cuba I come home with an overwhelming feeling of guilt. You might think that I should have an overwhelming emotion of gratitude but I don’t feel grateful at all when I come home from Cuba. All I feel is straight up guilt. The guilt that fills me is the fact that I have so much and I’m doing so little with it. Cubans are some of the most resourceful people I have ever met. From photographers to painters to dancers to body builders to car mechanics, Cubans do more with nothing than any other group of people I’ve ever seen.
I’ll relate just a few of the many stories I’ve heard from the amazing Cuban photographers I’ve met:
• After looking at a portfolio of portraits from one local Havana photographer I commented on how beautifully he lit his portraits. He went on to tell me that all he has for lighting are pieces of cardboard with aluminum foil glued on one side. He then shared that most of his portfolio was shot with a Nikon D70 camera that an American photographer gave him several years ago. He then got his hands on an old Minolta lens. Not having any kind of adapter to mount the Minolta lens on his Nikon body he simply holds it against the body to take photos. “I have a very dirty sensor.”
• Ramses Batista, a great Cuban photographer and guide, told me that there was a time he couldn’t afford to have his film developed so he and his friends would collect old developer and fix that hospitals and doctors’ offices used for developing x-rays and then use it to develop their film. The resulting images were super contrasty and grainy but, as Ramses says, “We could keep shooting.”
• One of my favorite Cuban photographers, (one of my favorite photographers ever) Raul Cañibano told me that there was a time when things were so hard in Cuba there wasn’t any film. He simply had to stop taking photos. This went on for some time until he got his hands on a reel of expired movie film. He cut the film and rolled it into old film canisters so he could start shooting again.
• I purchased some woodblock prints from an artist in Havana. I commented on how nice the paper was. He told me how he collects phone books and newspapers and makes his own paper. He doesn’t make his own paper because it’s cool to do so. He makes his own paper so he can have his own paper. Period.
• This year our group visited a gym that is well known for the number of champion bodybuilders who train there. They made all of their equipment.
• I can’t tell you how many old American cars I’ve been in that have Mitsubishi motors and Kia dashboards or some other combination of parts and pieces from Korean cars to Russian trucks. Cubans call them hybrids. 🙂
I learned a phrase on this last trip. “La Lucha.” To Cubans it means the struggle. The wrestle. The war. The fight. The level of how deep this struggle runs can vary from person to person you meet on the street, but it seems to be a prevailing theme in the day to day life of the people I meet there. This isn’t just a mental struggle. It isn’t a struggle of the heart. It sure as hell isn’t struggling to get that new Nikon D4 or that new set of Profoto lights. It’s a day to day and day after day struggle to survive and get just one tiny step ahead of where you were the day before.
I’m sure most of us can look at aspects of our life, beat a fist on our chest, and cry “LA LUCHA!” I’m sure you can look at your bank account, and the stack of bills you are trying to avoid opening, and quietly whisper, “La lucha.” However, chances are your struggle and my struggle cannot reach the depths of hardship that many in this world reach. When I say, “La lucha.” and when a Cuban says, “La lucha.” mine carries less weight. That’s not to say our struggles aren’t real. That’s not to say that we aren’t allowed to cry or scream or get stressed out by our situations. Struggle is struggle.
What leaves me with this overwhelming feeling of guilt, though, is through their struggles they do so much. They create with such passion. They have so little and they pour every bit of themselves into whatever endeavour they are pursuing and they create such beautiful work from it. From the struggle beauty arises. That beauty is fought for. It seemingly blossoms from nothing into something amazing and noteworthy.
And here I am. With my multiple cameras, lenses, computers, lights, and all the trimmings of a professional photographer. I have a home and a studio. What am I doing with all that I have? Compared to my peers in Cuba, I ain’t doing shit with what I have.
I want to leave you with a few questions:
How many of you have a good bit of gear and are constantly chasing the next thing? Could you lose half of what’s in your camera bag and still make photos? What are you doing with it? What are you making? How hard are you fighting for that next image?
I want you to sit back and think for a moment. Are you pursuing photography (or art or music or writing or etc.) because it is simply an enjoyable way to spend some spare time or are you pursing the thing you do because you have to? Because it’s burning inside of you and if you don’t let it out somehow it will consume you? For me I’m some sort of mix of these two things. I love photography. I enjoy it. I’m starting to relax a little and put my feet up and enjoy the ride, but I realize that I’m becoming fat and lazy in my craft at times because I’m coasting on my experience. The good thing for me is that photography is a fire inside of me. Laziness seems to keep the flames covered a little but it begins to consume me and I have to create something. I have to get off my fat lazy ass and make something.
Please note that I’m not saying we must all bare our chests, burn our cameras, and become a Flagellant in order to be a great photographer. Or artist. Or musician. Or whatever. I’m not saying that enjoying your art for the pure sake of enjoying it is wrong, or that you aren’t worthy of doing this thing unless you are struggling for it. What I am saying is that you need to be grateful for what you have. You need to be glad you have that older model camera. When you feel Alien Bees just aren’t “professional” enough you need to shut your pie-hole and be thankful for your Alien Bees. And then you need to rock the shit out of them. You need to clear your mind for just a moment and realize there’s a photographer somewhere in the world who has a Nikon camera and a Minolta lens and some cardboard and they are kicking ass with that rig. They’d love to share their pictures with you but they don’t have an Internet connection. They have zero likes on Facebook.
If your lens mounts to your camera just stop and consider yourself wealthy for a moment. Now use that wealth to the greatest degree that you can. And then push yourself even further. I know we all want that next new thing. I know we all can grow and become better starting now with whatever resources we have. In fact, the more resources we have, it probably means it’s going to be more difficult for us to grow.
What’s keeping you from growing?
If you are interested in spending some time in Cuba, I cannot recommend the Santa Fe Workshops Cuba Program highly enough. They offer the most unique and seamless Cuban experience you can find.