Photoessay: People and cars, Havana

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In the modern age, the car is a machine, a tool, something utilitarian. Features are added to meet regulations or to make you spend your money on something slightly better than what you had, or so Brand A can win a spec sheet comparison against Brand B. There’s very, very little soul; whatever little there is has to be engineered in. I don’t think this is the case with cars that are 50, 60, even 70+ years old; even if they had no soul to begin with, over the years they’ve certainly acquired patina, and with it, a history.

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Two things stuck with me about Cuban cars: firstly, the new stuff – mostly Korean, some Chinese, sone French – just looks dull and cheap compared to even the most patina’ed (putting it kindly) of the vintage vehicles. Secondly, the people really look after them – mostly because if they didn’t, there’d be no transport. A car is your friend, a family member, probably about the same age as your grandfather and not treated that differently. Everybody seems to be a taxi – you’ve got to make your extra income somehow. And then there’s the arm on the door, or curled around the roof rail – the latter is probably because you need something to hold on to when your suspension is an old mattress and the seats are benches, but the former – I can’t understand. It’s hot in Havana; hot enough that you should be very cautious before touching anything that might be metal. Yet the Cubans willingly roast their arms on the sides of their cars; much like an arm draped around a partner.

I’ve tried to capture some of that spirit here, but alas, I feel I’d need longer to truly do this project justice. Enjoy the set; you may recognise some of these from the recent Ultraprint Edition 2. MT

This set shot with a Ricoh GR, Nikon D800E and the 70-200/4 VR.

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Anywhere in Eastern Europe

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Cuban national colors

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The Hand

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Green determination

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Playing it cool

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Many hands should theoretically make light work

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Blue streak

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Journey’s end


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Ming,

    I believe the lead image is of a 56 Chevy, not a 57.

  2. Hi Ming,
    I love the color tonality in these pictures. Was it difficult to get the color profile “normalized” between the GR and the D800E…? I would guess that you perhaps tried to get the GR more to look like your D800E colors?

    Just curious, how is the RX100 mk3 trial going? Any chance it may supplant the trusty GR?

    I’ve been trying to refine my gear strategy, and more and more I’m thinking that your strategy of something like a GR and a Full Frame, may be the way to go. GR or RX100 for casuals and Full Frame for serious work or highest IQ? At this point in time, do you still find yourself carrying your GR much more than the EM1…?

    • Thank you. To answer your question – not really, because I’ve got custom profiles for both; also, I’m now ~8,000 frames in with the GR, and somewhere north of 70,000 between two D800s – so I’m pretty used to their tonal foibles.

      RX100III: it’s not staying, or supplanting the GR. As much as the reach is nice, it’s still slower on the draw, not as easily holsterable, and the image quality lags quite noticeably.

      I don’t carry the E-M1 much at all, mainly because of print demands and shutter shock. The GR has noticeably higher IQ at the wide end, and I’ll usually be packing some more serious hardware if I’m carrying at all.

  3. Steve Jones says:

    “Features are added to meet regulations or to make you spend more money on something better than what you had, or so brand A can win a super spec sheet comparison against brand B. There’s very, very little soul. Whatever there is has to be engineered in.”
    Can’t help smiling. I was sure you were talking about cameras.
    Love the green ones! That particular hue is gorgeous.

    • Actually, it could be either.

      No idea how much of the paint is original and how much is because of making do with wall paint and the effects of the Cuban sun…I suspect it’d actually be an impossible hue to replicate.

  4. Excellent set Ming and I just love the compression in most of these shots, hence the tight composition. I presume the 70-200 f/4 right? #2,3,4 are amazing.

  5. Sudarshan Mondal says:

    Thank you for sharing a nice photoessay, you are a strong writer and photographer at the same time. Slowly I am realizing the importance of good writing skill alongside photography work. You are an inspiration, keep watching for your next post. Thank you.

  6. Reblogged this on Ned Hamson Second Line View of the News and commented:
    Classy Cuban Cars

  7. Hi Ming,

    I am blown away by your photography and tapestry of words! I loved this post… Cuba is close to my heart 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

  8. Really like the set composition in the first 2 shots. Great balance. Nice work Ming.

  9. Ming, this is rarely mentioned here — you’re an exceptional writer. Photography and writing require observation; you sublimate the ordinary into something extraordinary with your images and words. Truly enjoyed this piece.

  10. Ming, this is rarely mentioned here — you’re a wonderful writer. Photography and writing require observation; you sublimate the ordinary into something extraordinary with your images and words. No hyperbole or bullshit… I truly enjoyed this!

    • Thank you. Odd though since there are far more words than images – I suppose if people don’t find them objectionable, then they tend not to notice…

  11. Thiefsie says:

    Hi Ming, Are you trying to convey the time of the title in the first two images? Side by side the lack of saturation/contrast in 1957 is distracting compared to 2014. I can’t decide whether the images would be better in isolation or up against each other like on this post. Maybe a more (ideal) way to convey this would be diffuse/cloudy lighting to dull everything back… Probably something a little rare to occur in Cuba?

  12. Nice series of pictures.

  13. Ming my close friends went to a trip to Guatemala and there was a “tragic accident” and coincidently they died and their dollars are missing. Take your Leica out of Cuba and go to the USA where they will respect you. Cuba is corrupt and they put people in jail there for 30 years for nothing.

    • I don’t own a Leica, nor did I take one to Cuba.

      What has Guatemala got to do with Cuba?

    • mgauss7, I find your comment a bit on the racist side. Are you trying to make a statement about Latin America?
      If there is anything to say about the state of disarray of some countries in Latin America is mostly product of an abusive and invasive policty towards the internal affairs of their governments by the US.

      I strongly recommend you to shove your words in your pockets.

      PS: Sorry Ming, I just don’t stand racism.

  14. Amazing set Ming! Really like how specific People and Cars is as a theme and the results are wonderful.


  1. […] from the Havana series. VR on the 70-200/4VR required for slow shutter to motion blur car handheld; D800E to maintain […]

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