Photographing Cuba: Part One / by Soy Cuba

Brett Robert,  El Jinete del Toro/The Bullrider.  2018, digital photography.

Brett Robert, El Jinete del Toro/The Bullrider. 2018, digital photography.

by Brett Robert

I recall the first moment I saw Cuba. It was 2016 and I was flying on a budget airliner from Fort Lauderdale to Bogotá, Colombia. As I stared out the window, I was mostly trying not to completely freak out about the fact I was headed to a foreign country alone. At the time I barely spoke Spanish, having had only a semester course in 2007 under my belt. I had been on airplanes alone dozens of times, but I was always meeting friends when I landed. As we cruised at 30,000 feet suddenly my mind became the most efficient machine in the history of humanity at creating disaster scenarios which would await me upon landing. My thoughts raced until suddenly I saw it, probably the largest island I had ever seen, and all I could think was ‘one day I need to go there.’ I could not stop staring at Cuba back then as I sailed above it, and I imagined life happening below me on that island. Ever since I have been fascinated and curious about life there and hoped that “one day” I would have the chance to visit.

“One day” turned out to come around in October 2018, when I had the opportunity to visit in the course of my studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

I’d like to tell the story of 3 particular photos I took: El Jinete del Toro, Las Escalaras, and El Perro y la Coppelia. Today’s post is about El Jinete del Toro/The Bullrider.

He was selling bull rides around a road side vista point in the Viñales valley, right off the main highway. Viñales is a town of nearly 30,000 in the Piñar del Rio province west of Havana. It is in a fertile hilly region where much of Cuba’s famous tobacco is grown. In recent years a local tourism industry has emerged. We spent the first two days of our week-long stay in Viñales. Right before I took this picture I went full tourist and bought a straw fedora and a couple souvenirs from a merchant at this roadside stand. As soon as I saw the bull I knew I wanted to take a photo. The rider came running over, probably hoping to sell me a ride, and I asked “permiso?” and he nodded that I was welcome to take a picture. I snapped four, adjusting the exposure and shutter speed slightly to account for the incredibly bright tropical light and the blinding white clouds. I often find myself taking 20-100 shots and fiddling around to get things just right, but I didn’t want to waste his time, so I snapped a quick four and paid him for his time and for allowing me to take a picture.

Usually I take hundreds of photos, and only a fraction end up worth editing. In Cuba this didn’t seem to happen; it was hard to take a photo that I didn’t find interesting in some way. The shot I liked most was the last of the four, with the f-stop on my 18-55 kit lens at 10 and the shutter speed at 1/1000th of a second.