When Montclair photographer Jay Seldin first decided to take a group of photographers on a photo workshop to Cuba in 2009, he was in a quandary. This was a country that had been “off limits” to visitors for decades. What could he photograph? What would be restricted? What couldn’t he see? Joan Finn answers those questions in this article in The Montclair Times.
Above, This once-elegant hotel in Suarez, Cuba, on the outskirts of Havana, shows the ravages of time — a far cry from the time when the island was known as the ‘Jewel of the Caribbean.’ Below, a group of young Cubans walk down a street after a summer rain. Both images were taken during Jay Seldin’s ‘Streets of Havana’ photo workshop to Cuba in 2009.
As a photographer, Seldin’s travels have taken him to the grand cities and remote villages throughout the world. “What could be more exciting than to see the vineyards of Italy, the golden sands of the Gobi and Sahara deserts, the great rivers of Europe, and the onion towers of St. Petersburg,” he said. “Or standing in awe at viewing the Roman Forum, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China and the Terra Cotta Warriors of Xian.”
But what challenges would he face on this “forbidden island”? Needless to say, he was intrigued.
“Every trip I take, I plan carefully,” he said. “I learn about the country beforehand as much as I can,” he told The Times. “As a visitor, it’s important to be aware of the cultural, political and social customs of the country that you are about to visit. The people you meet are always appreciative of your understanding of their culture. It shows that you care.”
Over the past 15 years, Seldin has documented these journeys by photographing the people, the places and the artifacts he’s encountered. Each time he visited a new country, he was encouraged by the friendliness of the people, the beauty of their lands, and the warmth and hospitality each culture had to offer.
With the exception of North Korea, Cuba’s communist regime is perhaps the last bastion of government today holding onto the “Cold War” ideals. And yes, Seldin noted, the people of Cuba are unable to enjoy the same freedoms as the rest of the Western world. “But the Cubans are as friendly to Americans as any other group of people that I’ve met during my travels. I’ve been invited into more homes in Havana than any other place that I’ve visited, ” he said.
On his visit to Cuba in 2009, Seldin was surprised to find a number of Americans wandering the streets. “I thought that Cuba was off limits, and had to ask myself, ‘What are all these Americans doing here?’ Could everyone have a visa from our government as I did, and if so, had the ban been secretly lifted and I was unaware of it? Or had they found another means of entry? And all the while, I was thinking how ‘cool’ it was to be an ‘American in Havana.'”
But that was a few years ago. Today, it’s much easier to travel legally since the new “People to People” license is now available. “But getting one isn’t so easy,” Seldin said. “There’s lots of bureaucratic hoops you still have to jump through.”
For Seldin, finding film in a “restrictive” country is not a problem, because he shoots only in digital images. But it was a problem for many young photographers whom he met in Cuba. “Film is very scarce, and digital is too expensive, even if it’s available in Cuba,” Seldin said. There was no need for batteries for his cameras, since they are all rechargeable. He just travels with a charger.
The electricity in Cuba is mostly 120v, but a few hotels provide the European 220v. But all you need is a simple adapter plug, since most of the computers and charges are rated within those voltage settings.
Since 2006, Seldin has turned his photo journeys into photo workshops for photographers who want to hone their artistic and technical skills, taking them to exotic locales in Europe, Asia and North America. The workshops have traveled to China, Tuscany, Kashmir (between India and Pakistan), India, Cuba, Haiti (following the earthquake), Las Vegas and the Desert, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Seldin will be leading another workshop to Havana and the tobacco plantations of Pimar del Rio (the source of Cuba’s world-famous cigars) on April 20, followed by a winter workshop to Cuba scheduled for Dec. 1 to 9. The focus of these workshops is to create memorable photos with firsthand instruction on-site by Seldin and local Cuban photographers. Seldin has had more than 30 years of experience as a fine arts photographer and photo educator. He holds an M.A. degree in visual studies and photography from William Paterson University.
For Seldin, there were no negative restrictions on photographing in Cuba. No one stopped him from taking pictures. But on the other hand, he wasn’t looking to photograph sensitive areas such as military or political locations. So the problem never arose.
Frozen in time
For Seldin, Cuba is the ultimate place to photograph. “All you have to do is look around,” he said. “Havana is like a city in a time capsule. It’s still in the 1950s. It’s a city frozen in time.”
Scaffolding placed before the “revolution” is still in place. Most buildings have not had repairs in 50 years. The paint is peeling off the walls and the light is long and yellow in the afternoon. The mornings bring a brilliant, clear light that just bathes landscape and the city like no light you’ve ever seen before, which is a boon to photographers.
“And the people are so willing to be photographed that it’s hard to resist their beckoning,” Seldin said.
“The people of Cuba are warm and friendly,” he continued. Today, they are happy to see Americans visit their shores. It’s just a matter of time, now, before the politics change for the better. Hopefully, my visit has created a little détente between America and Cuba. And maybe that’s how the bonding of international friendship begins.”
For the original report go to http://www.northjersey.com/arts_entertainment/art/147106595_Photographing_the_hidden_treasures_of_Cuba.html