Earlier this year I had the opportunity to head to Cuba for a little over a week with another talented travel journalist, Tyra Sutak. I have so much to say about it, but I’ll try to keep it short here. Cuba is one of the most unique places I’ve visited to date. People say landing in Havana is like stepping into a time capsule straight out of the 50s. Well, yes and no. It certainly looks like that when you land; the classic cars, the architecture, and the fact that everyone’s head is up, rather than buried in their cell phones (there is no such thing as cellular data in Cuba). It all leads to a nostalgic feeling like you’ve walked into the past, but that’s where the time-capsule feeling ends. Cuba doesn’t exist in a total vacuum, just one lacking in technology and the free flow of information.

People in Cuba are well informed, they care about politics, they’re progressive thinkers, they’re bright, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that they want more. I’m no stranger to poor countries, or to communist countries for that matter, but Cuba struck a different chord. I felt the government’s fingers in everything, and big brother’s eye watching over me most days. The only places to get online are at government sanctioned wifi hot spots on a network that has no privacy from public officials. Even staying at small, family-run casas particulares (essentially B&B’s), we were heavily documented by the families who were running them and our information was reported back to the government. Beyond that, people weren’t usually too thrilled to be photographed. Many people turned me down when I asked, and others said yes only after I pressed them a bit.

That’s not to say these aren’t great people; I had almost exclusively wonderful interactions with the locals I met all over the country. The Cubans I met seemed like genuinely happy people, despite the feeling I got that they weren’t completely satisfied in their lives. That’s part of it though, happiness and satisfaction aren’t that closely intertwined. You can see examples of that across lots of cultures when you look at people individually. The difference here, was that this sense of dissatisfaction didn’t feel like it was happening on a case-by-case basis, but rather across the board with almost everyone I met. 

For months now I’ve been struggling to wrap my head around this strange impression I had while I was there; trying to understand and make sense of what makes this place so unique, and what makes it tick, I still can’t quite put it into words (which is probably why I’m a photographer and not a writer). What I do know, is that for the first few days I was in the country I could barely pick up my camera and shoot a frame. I didn’t know how to tell the story of such an unexpectedly modern Cuba, nor did I know how do it justice in photos. It was everything I imagined and nothing I expected all at the same time. Maybe that vacuum of technology and information is at the root of it, because how could a place so far behind be so contemporary?

Here is a collection of some of my favorite shots from my trip: