Cuba overwhelmed me with visuals. It’s a country of true monumental contrasts that clash at every single clumsy and desperate one step forward, followed by the unavoidable and fractured two steps back. I’d been there for three weeks. Shooting every day from light till well past dark. The people, the culture, the art, the food, the music, the fishing, the country. It’s unlike anything. Because of circumstance, politics, history, culture, greed, disinterest and passion, it has no comparison anywhere else. I’d seen ample evidence that at any moment, total chaos was moments away. Faced with trying to understand and make something logical out of it, Richard suggested the only reasonable answer to all my questions was simply “Its Cuba”. That’s all the explanation a person needs.I was finished. The heat was oppressive. I literally had no strength left for anything. My legs were cramping. I was dehydrated and exhausted. All my clothes were dirty and I’d used up all my Cuban money. I had not much of me. That, and I had two days left in the Old City of Havana. I was sitting in the bar at one of the famous elegant old matrons of Cuban hotels - The Nacional. In the 50’s the hotel was owned by the mob. This is the kind of bar I could just roll over and die in. I was having yet another of what I consider the closest thing on this earth to a legal hard drug – a real Hemingway inspired Cuban daiquiri and a Cuban Monticristco #2. The idea for another Cuban photo shoot appeared to me mid- daiquiri/cigar. I had a driver assigned to me for the time I was in Old Havana, and I told Jose I now wanted to sit in the back seat of the car. I asked him to drive around the old city and part of the surrounding countryside with both back windows open on the rear seat. The rules I set for myself were to simply keep moving. No stopping for anything other than the normal car stuff. I was going to shoot parts of Cuba through the windows of the car while it was moving. No time to think. No time to compose. No time to focus. No time to plan. Nothing but pure impulse. The camera on automatic. Moments through and past the frame of the car window. Two straight days without stopping. One of the great non-commercial photographic experiences of my life. Looking back on it I see it as a consolidation of everything I’ve ever learned about photography meshed together into micro moments flying past a window. The fact that I wasn’t thinking made it all the more pure. I was simply reacting based on all my photographic history and all these pieces of Cuban life passing by through the frame of the car window.
There were hundreds of images from this exercise, but one stands alone, for me, as possibly the most important image I’ve ever taken. Important on several facets, but mostly because of what it represents in my evolution as a photographer, as well as the metaphorical story it appears to tell. I wanted to get some manner of baseball photo from my Cuba trip. This is it.
We were headed down a side street in old Havana, which was filled with disintegrating and crumbling grand old homes from the days when Havana was Paris in the Caribbean. Outside of one of these homes were two figures standing near to the side of the road and on the left side of our car as we passed by. It happened so fast I did not see exactly what I was looking at. It seemed to be an old man and child. It was just pure impulse that something was happening and I needed to shoot it. One frame and they were gone. Later that night and very late indeed I sat soaked in sweat in my hotel room, downloading images and generally gasping for breath. My last night in Havana. I’d edited images for about an hour and then I saw the frame of the two people by the side of the road. When I opened the image and processed the file so I could see what I had, I sat there with tears in my eyes. It is the one. It’s the one you asked about. The product of 40 years of shooting and learning and screwing up and trying again and again and again and then suddenly doing it right and then finding a way to see more clearly than before. That’s what all this photography is about. Seeing more clearly and more quickly and more simply than before.
I don’t know these people. I never will. I don’t know their story, so I’ll put words to what I see here, and if it’s even close to the truth, it’s worth every word. What I see is an old man and his grandson. They stand close together in an intimate conversation. The boy (maybe 10 years old) has a brand new baseball glove on his left hand. His grandfather stands close, with an intent look on his face while showing his grandson what appears to be a brand new baseball. As though it’s a gift to his grandson. A simple act. One we’ve seen and experienced ourselves in one form or another many times over. Baseball and old guys and kids are always good stuff. How could it not be? But in Cuba it’s an entirely different issue. Here it’s no simple gift. Here it is truly all that matters in the world. Everything else pales in comparison.I guess the grandfather at maybe 65 years old. More than many other countries Cuba ages it’s people before their time, so it’s hard to tell, but we’re close enough for this guess. That means he was 12 when, in January of 1959 Castro and Che and Raul and the revolution rode into Havana on the horse of idealistic socialism. Batista certainly deserved what he got. Supported by the US and the CIA, simply because he was not communist, the US and the CIA ignored he was a dictator and a killer and a crook. But we also know the potential flaws of idealism, and part of the price Castro imposed on his people for his version of Socialsim was their entrepreneurial spirit - the spirit that they could get ahead - the spirit that work mattered and the spirit that there was anything in the way of a future. For almost 60 years now there has been no future for the average Cuban. Slowly, the traditional working spirit of the people died. It died in three generations of people who have learned that nothing they can do will make things better for themselves. They get free medical care and education and some free food. They get not much else and certainly nothing for their own efforts. When the spirit of free thought and free expression and the free potential to grow individually disappear, part of the soul can crumble. For various reasons (including the delusional US embargo) Castro’s Socialist experiment has failed, and one of the price tags on that failure is the people.But buried somewhere in the Cuban people is the ingrained belief that ultimately somehow someway things might get better. Somehow someway the Cuban people have found a way to smile. As a group, they might be the happiest, friendliest people I’ve ever met, and I think the foundation of that attitude has got to be the fact that they’re all in this together. They have no future, so they have to turn inward. They turn to themselves and their families and all their brothers and sisters in the chaos that is Cuba. They love, they sing, they eat, they laugh, they find the things that are truly important. The things they can hold onto. The things that mean something. The things that matter. Baseball is one of those things. So what I see in this photo is an old man and child who have nothing. They have no future they can count on. Nothing they can do can make things better. They can’t afford anything and they have nothing. Please remember that there are very few brand new baseballs anywhere in Cuba. Certainly less than that for the average person. But somehow the old man had found a way to get his grandson a brand new vision of the future. The old man knows what matters. He knows what lasts. He knows what’s important. For this one single moment, he’s showing his grandson what matters. He’s showing him a baseball and he’s telling him “Take care of this. This is what you can believe in. This is what matters”. He’s showing him a baseball and telling him how important this can be. Somehow he found a new mitt and a baseball where there are no new mitts and baseballs. How he found it or could ever possibly afford it doesn’t matter. The fact remains he found it and in the photo he’s giving it all to his grandson. The gift of what truly matters. This is my favorite photo of all time (so far). A true crystal clear impulse. One 250th of a second out the window of a car in the old city of Havana. As I travel through the remaining years of my life, this image will live. It will endure. No matter what I might or might not accomplish, this image shows me the simplicity of what really matters. This is the one.WH