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Craig Ligibel’s portraits of Cuba

Craig Ligibel’s portraits of Cuba

A glimpse into the soul of Cuba through the lens of an American photojournalist
By Craig Ligibel

I have photographed people all over the world…from majestic Masai warriors in Kenya to weather-beaten lobstermen off the coast of Maine. Sometimes, poking my camera into the faces of strangers can be a risky business. But mostly, people accept the fact that my lens is an extension of my outwardly gregarious persona. They smile. Go on doing what they were doing. And are happy to be compensated by a grateful wave, a firm handshake and a heartfelt “thank you” delivered to the best of my limited ability in their native language. (By the way, “Thank you” is “Asante” in Swahili!)

Thus, it was with eager anticipation that I unpacked my cameras recently in our spacious room at the Saratoga Hotel in downtown Havana and prepared to spend 7 days doing what I like to do best: photographing everyday people in their natural settings, utilizing available light and a small format, minimally intrusive camera.

My wife and I had come to Cuba last February in the company of 10 friends as part of a humanitarian mission organized by long-time Cuba hand Jon Showe. Showe has built a solid reputation as an American who knows his way around Cuba. He routinely leads humanitarian missions to Cuba, often taking participants to off-the-beaten path destinations and arranging serendipitous interchanges with the Cuban people that go far beyond the standard bricks and mortar tour. His philosophy is “Cuba is more than a country; it is a state of mind.”

Our plan was to spend two days in Havana, journey to the Vinales Valley for two days, and then return for three more days in Havana before going home. The itinerary had been crafted for maximum touring and minimal relaxing. But there was plenty of time for off-agenda exploring and meaningful people-to-people interchanges.

I often headed off on my own. While others were touring the National Gallery, I was roaming the back streets of the Old City. While the group was lingering over a second cup of great Cuban coffee at the Hotel, I was watching the city come alive, strolling down the Avenida de las Misiones as the rising sun cast dramatic shadows over the street’s inhabitants. And while some took a dusty horseback ride in the San Vincente Valley, I spent a productive two hours making friends with…and photographing…the locals in a roadside café.

I photographed more than 100 locals. And I can honestly say with only a couple of exceptions, my subjects welcomed me into their lives with warmth, candor and friendship. On only two instances did someone refuse to be photographed. I would always ask permission to intrude on their space…and would give little mementos (tiny US flags; American baseball cards etc) to the children.

I found the Cuban people to be warm, resilient, cheerful and extremely proud of their country. We didn’t talk politics, but I could sense that by and large people were content with their lot in life. Often, the most gregarious individuals would emerge from what to me looked like some of the most dilapidated buildings. They asked nothing more of me than respect.

As I prowled the side streets that led into Aveneda Simon Bolivar, I probably was venturing into territory where I shouldn’t have been. But even though I was the only Norte Americano within sight, I never feared for my safety…nor did I ever stop taking pictures..

It is my hope that you can get a glimpse into the soul of the country by looking carefully into the faces of its people.

About Craig Ligibel
Craig Ligibel is an award-winning writer/photojournalist. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune; the Los Angeles Times; Sailing Magazine; Cruising World; Cabo Life and Northwest Airlines World Traveler. He lives with his wife on Useppa Island, Florida. September 2012

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