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National Geographic photographers like David Guttenfelder and Maggie Steber have covered assignments around the world, and have made multiple visits to the fascinating island nation of Cuba. As experts leading different dates of our photo expeditions in Havana, we asked them to reflect on the experiences travelers can look forward to on our unique people-to-people program with a focus on photography.
Q: What is special about the people-to-people program and encounters?
David: It’s an especially fascinating moment to travel to Cuba as the country's relationship with the USA evolves and Cuba further opens to the world. This also means that travelers to Cuba have a unique responsibility. The people-to-people program allows us to explore Cuba for all of the right reasons—to try to understand the reality of Cuban people’s lives, and to contribute something positive to the changes to Cuba's society, culture, economy, and environment.
Maggie: The thing about any journey to a foreign destination that makes it particularly special is the people. Even if you were at the top of Mt. Everest with its view of the “top of the world,” it would be the people who got you there who would make the trip even more special. In Cuba we are at sea level and in the tropics. The Cuban people are among the friendliest and warmest of anyone I have met working in over 60 countries. Their hospitality and culture are extremely open and accessible, and you will see that at evening dances in Havana’s Cathedral Square, at restaurants, in museums, in the architecture, and in their traditions. In this city, which I consider one of the most beautiful in the world, Cubans welcome you into their homes for a cafecito (coffee). They are a people of great character, culture, and patience. Their verve for life is evident in their walk, their talk, and in their vibrant daily life.
Q: How does photography enhance the cultural exploration on this unique program?
David: Personally, I feel there’s no better place to test the power of photography than in a country like Cuba. Photography is an intimate way into people’s lives, and a way to interact and connect with people. Photography has the power to open a window to a place that has long been isolated, and offer understanding.
Maggie: What drew me to photography in the first place is that every image is both memory and history. When you go to a place that has history so accessible (as does Havana), you create photographs that capture both these things. In the light, the architecture, the feast for one’s senses, their traditions, history, and vibrant daily life, we can make photographs that will document one of the most meaningful trips you will ever take. This city is so steeped in history and memories—even the way the light plays off of buildings enhances the timeless mystery of this city. Photography gives us a way to make sense of things, to shape them, and there are a myriad of photographic themes you can work along. For me, just being there is one of the most romantic and magical experiences I've had, and each time I leave, I long to return. A longing that never quite goes away.
Q: Tell us a little about a project you have or are working on related to Cuba.
David: In 2016, I traveled on the first cruise ship to sail from the United States to Cuba in nearly a half-century. My story titled "Cuba: The Coming Wave,” published in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine, was a look at how the increase in visitors to Cuba will impact and contribute to changes already underway in Cuba. In November 2016, I was an instructor with the National Geographic Photo Camp in Havana, where we taught Cuban high school students how to use photography to reach people and to tell their own stories. I also traveled to Cuba in December to follow the funeral cortege of Fidel Castro, covering the historic moment for National Geographic News.
Maggie: I worked extensively in Cuba during 1982 and 1985, and have returned at least a dozen times since then to work on a story on the Taino culture for National Geographic magazine. I explored Cuba with my camera on over 40 visits that took me throughout the country. The Russians and other Eastern European (Iron Curtain) citizens lived there at the time; the big bows you see in the hair of young Cuban girls comes from the Soviet era in Cuba. Everyone who goes to this island nation photographs a lot of the same things, but what so many visitors don't know is that Havana extends beyond the beautiful postcard images and has so many more intimate experiences and locations to share—which we will see as we engage with the locals to learn about their culture. The more intimate a trip is to a place, the more it means to you and impacts you...perhaps even changes your life. I have photographed for a long time there, and while many things have not changed, there are also many things that have, and in ways not always obvious. I can say this based on my travels and experiences there: Cuba is changing and it will change even more. If you want to see Cuba as it was and as it currently is—still untouched in so many ways, despite our differences—this is the time to go.
Q: What draws you to Cuba?
David: I am drawn to Cuban history. The past, present and future are blended together in Cuba. I feel like a time traveler, moment by moment, when I’m in Cuba. I am drawn to Cuba's charismatic, friendly and open people. I also love Cuba’s vibrant culture, especially the music that pours out of every bar and restaurant across the country.