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National Geographic photographers like Stephen Alvarez 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?
Stephen: The people-to-people exchanges are a wonderful opportunity. We travel to learn about Cubans through direct contact, and of course, have them learn about us. Cubans are naturally curious and intensely proud of their culture. They are eager to share about life in Cuba. These people-to-people encounters leave everyone, Cubans and travelers, culturally enriched.
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. The Cuban people are among the friendliest and warmest of anyone I have met after having worked in more than 60 countries. Their hospitality and culture are extremely open and accessible—Cubans will welcome you into their homes for a cafecito (coffee). They are a people of great character, culture, and patience, and their verve for life is evident in their walk, talk, and traditions.
Q: How does photography enhance the cultural exploration on this unique program?
Stephen: I have always thought of cameras as keys to unlocking other peoples' lives. Making a photograph of someone is the perfect way to get to know them, and Cubans are exceptionally friendly and easy to get to know. Making and sharing photographs result in the exchanges being richer and longer-lasting.
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. 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 in Havana. 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. It's a longing that never quite goes away.
Q: Tell us a little about a project you have or are working on related to Cuba.
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 Taino culture for National Geographic magazine. I explored Cuba with my camera during more than 40 visits that took me throughout the country when Russian and other Eastern European citizens lived there. Everyone who goes to this island nation photographs a lot of the same things, but there is so much of Havana that extends beyond the beautiful postcard images, and the city 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 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: 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—this is the time to go.
Q: What draws you to Cuba?
Stephen: Cubans! I love the Cuban people—their warmth, their resourcefulness, their culture of genuine hospitality. Havana, in particular, has a decayed grandeur that I will never tire of, and Cubans have an openness and a pride in their lives that makes the country a great pleasure to photograph. That openness is infectious, and I have seen lifelong friendships formed during these exchanges.