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Meet the photographers capturing Cuba in the midst of change

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The vivid colors of Cuba are enough to lure any photographer to the island. And as it becomes easier to travel to Cuba, visitors get a chance to see not only the gorgeous views of Havana and beyond but also a glimpse of a society embarking on a path of great change. 

Cuba may call to mind streets filled with vintage cars, but there's so much more to be explored within the country. These ten photographers are making a serious effort to document the changing world of Cuba, as well as to share the incredible beauty of the landscapes and the stories of those who live there.

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Photo courtesy of Sebastien Staub

Sebastien Staub

Sebastien Staub, a Switzerland-based photographer, traveled to Cuba on a personal vacation. "I'm doing personal projects on a regular basis to keep my [photographic] work evolving," he said.

They are completely disconnected from our constantly connected world, and it was so refreshing.
Sebastien Staub

Simpler, disconnected lifestyle

"It was really incredible to [meet] people who have no real access to the worldwide news or to the internet," Sebastien Staub said.

He believed Cubans seemed happier and mused that the happiness may be related to their simpler and disconnected lifestyle. 


'Playground for a photographer'

Staub's trip to Cuba had no overarching goals, other than his desire to capture interesting landscapes and to get some fresh air. He booked his flight just three days prior to his departure date and stayed in the country for three weeks. "Cuba is for sure a really interesting playground for a photographer," he explained.

"People are so friendly, and I never felt once insecure, even in the middle of the night with my photography equipment," Staub added. However, he wonders if this experience will be affected in the future by increased American tourism.

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Photo courtesy of Francois Ollivier

Francois Ollivier

Francois Ollivier is a self-taught French photographer currently based in Montreal. While in between jobs, he had the opportunity to travel to Cuba. "I didn't want to go to an all-inclusive resort," he said.

Finding the ideal spot

When Ollivier arrived in Cuba last summer, he had no particular ideas about what to shoot, but he was instantly inspired by three things: the colors, the symmetry, and the people. His work typically involves portraiture, whether of himself or strangers.

His goal in each photo was to first find the ideal spot. Ollivier would wait for the right person to walk by, hoping that the strangers would agree to be in the photograph. In his eyes, a photo is only complete once the subject and the surroundings exist in perfect harmony.

My photography is based on observation and on magnifying the simplest things. In my work, the subjects are as important as their surroundings.
Francois Ollivier

Magnifying the simplest things

According to Ollivier, his camera allows him to get truly close to another person. "In real life, you wouldn't touch someone's hair, right? For a few minutes, the camera gives you that right," he said.

He doesn't plan much, saying that the images "just happen."

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Photo courtesy of Peter Schafer

Peter Schafer

Photographer Peter Schafer first traveled to Cuba in 2014 and returned one year later. In Cuba, he focused on street photography, overlaying his pictures to form a wider scene for the viewer.

Heading towards a new future

While the often-photographed classic American cars brought to mind the country's past, Schafer also had a view of a society heading towards a new future. He found that Cubans were eager to share stories about both their past and their desires for change.

Schafer was inspired by the dynamic between Cuba's past and its changing future. "I came up with the idea of creating wide angle views from 6x6 negatives by overlaying the edges of multiple pictures," he wrote for Vantage. "I think the imperfect joining fits the rough edges of Havana."

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Photo courtesy of Christopher Baker

Christopher Baker

"Cuba has a profoundly rich cultural environment, very advanced and enthralling," said Christopher Bake, a travel writer and photographer who leads photography workshops and tours in Cuba.

The society is vivacious. Smiling children. Ubiquitous music. Gritty street life that seems to have spilled from a romantic novel...
Christopher Baker

An authentic look

National Geographic called Baker "one of the world's leading authorities on Cuban travel and culture." By capturing subjects in natural environments, Baker creates a purely authentic look at Cuban life. He tends to ignore anyone posing for tourist photos.

Trapped in time

"The first-time visitor is very consciously and immediately struck by the reality of the 'trapped in time' component, thanks to all the American cars and the vast architectural landscape spanning the centuries," said Baker of the misconceptions that the average person might have about the country. 

"But Cuba has a profoundly rich cultural environment, very advanced and enthralling, not least thanks to the success of an educational system and of multiethnic harmony that in many ways are models for the rest of the world."

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Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Desmond Boylan

Desmond Boylan

"News photography is a way of life," said photojournalist Desmond Boyland of his profession. "It is showing what happens in the straightest, clearest, and most honest way possible."

Gentrification in Cuba

Boylan is using his photography to capture signs of gentrification in Havana. In the above photo, artist Jesus Hermida Franco paints in a studio that is now frequented by tourists. He believes that the changes coming to Cuba allow some residents to realize their dreams. Yet other faces in Boylan's photographs worry about the impacts that gentrification may have on their often deteriorating homes.

Boylan's other work showcases a wide range of events from the Kardashians' visit to a cigar festival to the arrival of the Pope. 

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Photo courtesy of Mark Cersosimo

Mark Cersosimo

"When I set out to shoot Cuba, I did so with the intention of showcasing the true beauty of this country," said photographer Mark Cersosimo. The New York-based photographer traveled to Cuba with his girlfriend.

It's accessible, it's beautiful, it's pure.
Mark Cersosimo

iPhone-only photographs

Cersosimo wants Americans to be aware that Cuba is no longer off limits to them, and he's also using his photography to attempt to paint this picture.

With iPhone-only photographs, Cersosimo captures both vivid street scenes and stunning landscapes. During his time in Cuba, he traveled from Old Havana to Trinidad, aiming to see as much of the country as possible. 

'Brightness of the souls'


"All my friends think of it as this untouchable, off-limits area where you'll get questioned by the CIA immediately upon returning to American soil," Cersosimo said. "It truly is not like that at all." 

"The brightness of the souls of the Cuban people shines through. They can feel that change is coming. It's already started in a major way," he added.

He urges those interested in visiting Cuba to do so now, before it becomes too commercialized.

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Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Christine Armario

Christine Armario

Christine Armario is a staff writer for AP, and her work often focuses on Cuba, particularly on Cubans who chose to leave behind the country and their lives there, risking their lives to head to America.

Finding distant relatives

Armario's own parents fled Cuba in the 1960s. Though Cuban culture played a large part in her childhood, she was always curious about what her parents had left behind. When Armario finally traveled to Cuba, she was amazed to find distant relatives.

She explores other familial and romantic relationships that have been impacted in a similar way. Pictured in the photo above, Yainis Souto holds a photo of her then-boyfriend, Jose Fuentes Lastre. Lastre fled Cuba on a raft and landed in Florida, leaving Souto behind in Cuba. 

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Photo courtesy of Robert Lang

Robert Lang

"It was like no country I had ever been to before and my love for it lingered throughout all these years," wrote photographer Robert Lang of Cuba. "Havana is one of the most vibrant cities you could ever experience."

Dazzling nature

Many of Lang's photographs of Cuba are overlaid with vibrant colors, resulting in neon blue skies, pink fields, and purple water. His above photo of the Sierra del Escambray Mountains shows some of the island's dazzling nature.

Lang is also aware of the changes coming to Cuba, having visited for the first time in 2008 and returning seven years later. He observed an increased tourist presence in Havana and changes in Cuba's youth, as they start to wear more name-brand styles and become more in touch with technology.

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Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

Ramón Espinosa

Photographer Ramón Espinosa has worked all over the world, everywhere from Lebanon to South Africa to Venezuela. While working for AP, he eventually found himself capturing the scenes of Cuba.

To be a photojournalist in Cuba is to try to leave the topics we all know about the island and to really understand the society and culture.
Ramón Espinosa

Capturing daily life

If something big is happening in Cuba, Espinosa is probably there: Obama's visit, the Major Lazer concert, the Chanel fashion show. But his images also show daily life. In one series, Espinosa highlighted a state-run workshop combatting a violin shortage in Cuba.

Cuba's special nature

"My goal is to document [Cuban] life and the changes in their society as if I was a citizen of the country, not from the point of view of a journalist who visits for a few days and has a preconceived image of the Cuban people," said Espinosa.

In attempting to accomplish this overall goal, Espinosa tries to learn all about the country, covering each subject with as much depth as he possibly can.

He is also careful in his journalistic work to not compare Cuba with any other societies, instead capturing its special nature.

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Photo courtesy of Ellen Silverman

Ellen Silverman

Ellen Silverman first traveled to Cuba in 2010, and she found herself instantly inspired by the country and its people. She has since visited six more times to focus on projects and connect with Cuban photographers.

I was impressed by the graciousness and vibrancy of the Cuban people. I think that this is a reaction that many of us who visit Cuba share.
Ellen Silverman

Elderly Cubans

In "My roots lie here,"  Silverman documented the lives of elderly Cubans and the ties that they hold to their homes. Her current project explores how possessions can define them. She also collaborated on a cookbook  that celebrates the traditional and resourceful Cuban table.


No specific destination

Silverman rented a car in Cuba and drove out to the countryside, with no specific destination in mind.

"One morning, we stopped to visit a farm," she recalled. "As most Cubans do, they gave us a warm welcome, inviting us to sit, talk, and drink coffee with them. I followed Zoilya into the kitchen where she was stoking her fire to put on another pot of coffee.

"We chatted while she did her chores. She took me into the bedroom, where she pulled a well-worn box out of her cabinet that contained treasured family photos."

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Photo courtesy of Carlos Jaramillo

Carlos Jaramillo

"It is always important for me to meet locals, to be able to portray the true culture of the country and represent the people authentically," said photographer Carlos Jaramillo of his work. 
What I enjoyed seeing the most about pigeon racing was the passion the racers had in caring for their pigeons.
Carlos Jaramillo

Pigeon racing in Cuba

In a series of photographs, Jaramillo documented that various aspects of pigeon racing in Cuba.

While exploring the rooftops of Old Havana, Jaramillo came across a pigeon racer named Erislandy. Curious about the sport, he struck up conversation with Erislandy to learn more.

Impact of communism

Following his conversations with Erislandy, Jaramillo was deeply intrigued by pigeon racing and began to explore in his work the relationships that the handlers had with each pigeon. He was most surprised by the amount of control and training that went into the sport. 

Jaramillo also expressed surprise at the overall impact that communism had had on the country. "The main cities were very commercialized, but once you entered the more rural areas, it felt more isolated," he said. "[For example], one of their primary food sources was rations."

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Photo courtesy of Sara Louise Petty

Sara Louise Petty

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I had wanted to visit Cuba for some time," said Sara Louise Petty. "I concentrate primarily on street photography and portraiture, and I knew there would be a lot of great candid photographs to be had in Cuba."

'Opening a huge door'

Petty jumped at the chance to visit Cuba as soon as she learned about the free Rolling Stones concert. "I felt this would be a once in a lifetime trip, and I was excited to witness the Cuban people experience their first Rolling Stones concert," she said. "It symbolized many things, but mostly it was the feeling of opening a huge door towards freedom to the outside world."

The energy at the concert met Petty's expectations. The buzz of the crowd and the exhilarating atmosphere more than made up for the lack food vendors and lax security. 

Havana's female boxers

In addition to attending the Rolling Stones concert, Petty focused on documenting the people of Cuba. Her journey eventually brought her to a 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 and frequented a local ring," she said.

The vendor introduced Petty to the boxer, who then brought her to a ring where she was able to watch local boxers practice and socialize. She found a particular interest in capturing images of the female boxers.


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