Julian Reid is a New Zeland photographer, currently based in London, UK. His photography combines his blazing and enthusiastic interest for the world, deeply reflecting in his art a real curiosity for new places and people.
In 2013 I decided to take a trip to Cuba.
I had seen many photos of old cars, cigars, smiling faces and rum. Although that all seemed somewhat appealing, I wanted to see what life was really like there. So I arranged as much accommodation as possible – without killing all spontaneity – and set off with my 35mm camera and a large bag of Portra 400 film.
The beautiful crumbling buildings, fantastic live music, and the warmth of the people and climate make it one of the most instantly appealing cities I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. It felt like you had arrived at your own surprise party. Also, there had been a new wave of local restaurants opening and I found the home-style cooking of these paladares delicious and spicy although I had been told the food was bland.
I loved every minute of my time in Havana but I did not take many photos there.
It was only when wandering around the back streets behind the Malecon that my interest was piqued. It was the repair shops, tiny bakeries, and people sitting on their stairs, that I found fascinating.
This was probably because at the time I was more interested in a street/documentary style of photography – a personal favourite being Alex Webb.
So after a week of indulging in the clichés of fun, sun, and rum… it was time to move on.
My first stop was Viñales via the stunning silvery sand beaches of Cayo Levisa.
In Viñales I stayed on a tobacco farm with its hard-working owners. Their little farm was an oasis of rich red soil, surrounded by large craggy mountains. For me getting up in the misty dawns was easy and I would wander into town and explore the small shops encrusted in the large colonial buildings. Other mornings I would walk deep into the valley finding refreshingly cool caves or the occasional horse.
It was on one of my walks into town that I met two Germans hiring a bike for the day. They told me they were heading back to Havana soon and were thinking of heading east to the town of Trinidad. Later that evening I bumped into them again at a small bar and, after several beers, they asked if I wanted to join them.
I agreed and we arranged to leave Viñales.
A couple of days later we left, and after a few bumpy hours on a bus we were back in the capital. We decided to hire a car with a driver as it was relatively cheap and seemed the easiest thing to do. Our plan was to go to Cienfuegos for a night or two before carrying on to Trinidad. The driver was a young guy who could speak English extremely well and was very knowledgeable on Cuba’s history.
It was during this trip we were to hear a reoccurring theme from many Cubans.
They were very proud of their history and standing up to capitalism but now wanted the opportunity to run their own businesses and use their educations. Most of the Cubans I was to meet would repeat this mantra. They were highly-educated but their qualifications meant nothing as there were absolutely no jobs to be had. Our driver was a good example of this. He had a degree in astrophysics but was working as a driver… because the tourism industry was booming and Cuba’s astrophysicists were not in demand.
Without exception, I can say every driver I had on my trip to Cuba was better educated than me.
Although the streets were alluring still with their flaking pastel facades, Cienfuegos had more the feel of an industrial city and was therefore less attractive. My new German friends and I decided to make the most of it and drank a bottle of rum whilst smoking second rate cigars on our rooftop at sunset. I did however, take a few photos here. There seemed to be an abundance of queues for shops combined with women holding brightly coloured umbrellas in various positions to protect themselves from the sun. I took a few shots but was already keen to move on… It was time for Trinidad.
After travelling the empty cracked highways scattered with weeds and the odd policeman taking bribes, we arrived. Trinidad felt like a photographer’s dream.
Small cobbled streets with low one-storey housing, bustling with citizens on foot, bicycle, horse and cart, or in bright yellow Cocotaxis. The light was always perfect. Long days, sunny days, and evenings permeated with an exquisite, soft, golden light. There always seemed to be something happening on the streets. One minute I would d be focusing on two shirtless men carrying a car door, and a minute later would be interrupted by a wedding party in white carrying heart-shaped helium balloons to their Cadillac.
I could spend all day standing on a street corner in Trinidad.
It was a splendid example of constantly moving human life. It was life in the moment, free from phones, social media, and the Internet. It was the here and now.
Some days I would catch a Cocotaxi down to Playa Ancon to watch life go by there and take the sun.
The beach was charming but the juxtaposition of crass tourists and ugly Russian hotels could be a little jarring so I preferred to lose myself in the streets of Trinidad.
It was around this time I discovered the “House of Crucifixes”.
The “House” was a typically anonymous door, only two streets away from my accommodation. I knocked on the door and asked in very slow English if this was indeed the place I was looking for. Thankfully the gentlemen who answered spoke better English than my Spanish and ushered me in with a nod. The interior was superb. Enormous, light and airy rooms with very high ceilings made the stifling outside temperature barely noticeable.
My humble host guided me from room to room, proudly showing me his collections of antiques and memorabilia. Misshapen coke bottles, original shares in Havana Club Rum, and most proudly an old wooden baseball bat supposedly used by Babe Ruth. Finally, he ushered me into a gigantic dimly-lit room lined from floor to ceiling with crucifixes of all shapes and sizes.
I knew as soon as I entered I really had to photograph this room.
However, there were immediately two problems.
Firstly, I had maybe one – or hopefully two shots left on my roll of film. Although I did have more in a pocket, it would mean stopping and changing rolls. Secondly, and most pressing, was the fact that his elderly mother was sound asleep on the bed. This raised two additional dilemmas. The first being I did not feel that comfortable about taking a photo of an elderly woman who was asleep in her own home. And the second being I would have to use a flash and therefore wake her. This also meant if I did take a shot, in all likelihood, I would wake her… and then have to change rolls to continue. I was in an awkward situation.
After standing in the corner for what seemed an inordinate amount of time, my host nudged me to take the shot.
So, with predictable results, I did. The flash fired, she awoke startled to find a stranger with a camera in her room… I apologised whilst loading another roll of film. I think I shot 3 or 4 more shots before I felt I had really outstayed my welcome. Departing and feeling sheepish, her son asked me what I intended to do with these photos. I replied that they were just for my website and I would not let them be used for.
Later that night I met up with my German compadres and they laughed about it as we said our goodbyes. They were heading back to Havana and then home to Germany for winter and work. My time with them had been fantastic. Wonderful, warm friendly gentlemen with great taste in music, with whom I had spent much time on long car journeys and long evenings playing cards and drinking together.
They would be sorely missed.
For me, it was time to move on too. The next stop was Remedios.
Arriving late at night, I was guided into my quarters in a private house while the occupants slept. It was only upon waking the next morning that the opulence of the room and its adjoining rooms became apparent.
I was surrounded by immense floor-to-ceiling mirrors reflecting dusty chandeliers and glass art deco lamps. The room also had two sizable adjacent windows at street-level on a quiet intersection. Each evening I would take photos of the room and its reflections as the rich light slowly faded.
It was during my time at Remedios that I decided to take a day-trip to Cayo Santa Maria.
I arose early, although the trip was not long, as I had heard the causeway that you take can be spectacular, particularly when empty. That day, I was truly lucky. The road, the weather, and the driver – a doctor – were somehow all part of a whole. Our path was devoid of traffic so we made excellent time, which also meant we could pull over anywhere I wanted whenever I felt like making photographs. Weather-wise it was perfection. Subtle breezes, calm water, and the odd cloud to reflect in the glassy sea made the whole journey surreal. I remember more about the journey than the destination. However, I do remember visiting a dilapidated water park on the way back, where a man struggled to free a heron from a power line.
It was a very sad detour.
It was nearly time for me to leave Cuba.
I travelled back to Havana to spend my last few days there before my flight. Before my drive back, I called a driver whom I had hired in my first week there to arrange for him to show me around the outskirts of Havana. An elderly Chinese man, who had studied in the US, he was a natural historian who was happy to drive outside of the city to the lesser-known spots. I spent my last few days with him, driving in his old Russian car to botanical gardens and waterfalls. I listened as he told me about the old days and how the Chinese had left Cuba and why Chinatown was not really Chinese anymore. On my last day, I gave him a bottle of rum and he gave me a surprisingly good CD of Mariah Carey singing Cuban songs, which he had burnt for me.
I was very sad to leave Cuba and him in particular.
The month I had spent in Cuba had been incredible.
I have been lucky to have travelled a lot since then, but my time in Cuba was truly life-changing. Nowhere my journeys have taken me is remotely like it. The natural beauty, the architecture, the history, and the affable people are almost beyond description. I can well understand why Cubans want change and opportunity. I just hope they can achieve this without losing Cuba’s unique charm and warmth.
A couple of months later I finished scanning all of my negatives from my trip on a cold London day. After editing it down, I uploaded it to my website. I was happy with my edit and people seemed to appreciate the photos.
Unfortunately, several months later a fellow photographer reached out with some disturbing news.
My photo of the “House of Crucifixes” was now doing the rounds on the Internet. Firstly, as humourless memes and then later, and more offensively, to advertise businesses. I reached out to several of the businesses but it was already too late. I was met with either no response or claims that I shouldn’t have posted it on the Internet if I did not want it used.
Unfortunately, I do not have the time or energy to spend on stopping this. I just wish people would ask first. I had made a promise not to use it for advertising and I feel like I have let that old woman and her son down.
One day I hope to return to the “House of Crucifixes” with a print of that contentious photo and make my apologies. That is the least I can do.