Photoessay: People of Cuba, part I

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One suitcase, many possible professions

Today’s photoessay is the first part of my report from the streets of Cuba. I tried to go in with as few preconceptions as possible, to just observe and shoot; there’s a little bit of movement away from the anonymity I’d been pursuing in my previous images. Perhaps it’s because the city itself is not anonymous or uniform or soulless or a cookie-cutter copy of every other first world city; the individuals mattered again – even when they were in groups.

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Cuba’s larder

I found the people friendly once you broke through their reserve; a very binary personality. Most of the interesting action happened when they were not consciously posing for the camera – I shot first, was inevitably noticed, spoke to them, and then made the photos they requested – but kept almost none, because they’d lost the natural expression that had attracted me to photograph them in the first place. It almost seemed to me that the unguarded reality was cautious and slightly weary, afraid; but when they were conscious of being observed, a wall of bravado and strained happiness went up. There is a general sense of anticipation and waiting; for change, perhaps. A strange feeling, because I’d always imagined it to be the other way around – strangers only get admitted to true feelings after some time of trust; but why hide happiness behind misery? It still makes no sense to me. MT

This set was shot with a Nikon D800E, the 70-200/4 VR and Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus APO-Distagon.

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Leaving and arriving looks the same without causality

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Mechanical objects mirror their owners

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From hope…

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Literal daily bread, I

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Against the rules

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Literal daily bread, II

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Netbooks are not very useful without internet

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Waiting for the future or suspicious of the past?

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National colors

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Whimsical hope in a garden of decay

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The question asked but unanswered

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Not good enough

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


  1. Brett Patching says:

    Wonderful photoessay Ming!

  2. Reblogged this on Kuba Kosy.

  3. You’ve said before that you’re not really a ‘people photographer,’ but these are some of your best images, in my opinion.

    • Thanks. I used to do a lot of documentary work, but I personally prefer to shoot more static subjects these days – that’s all I meant…

  4. Bit late to the party (just got back from holiday) but I couldn’t not comment on these. They are superb, even by your standards. Nothing else I can add to that which hasn’t already been said, about the colour in particular. Just a pleasure to look at.

  5. Dwaine Dibbly says:

    I have loved Cuba since High School in SW Florida in the mid-1970s, when I took 4 years of Spanish. You see, in my school there were these Cuban girls….

    Thank you for the wonderful photos.

  6. Reblogged this on Ned Hamson Second Line View of the News and commented:
    Wonderful, bueno, great!

  7. I love the lighting and color of the first shot “One suitcase…” and, for me, that photo is absolute proof that street photography does not have to be black & white.

  8. Wow, wow and wow Ming. Simply stunning!

  9. Truly stunning. “Contemplation” is wonderful. The expression is very intriguing, but the composition is gorgeous.

  10. Really nice set Ming, and very different than other Cuban pictorials — there’s a lot of you in it. Can’t wait to see part 2!

    • Thanks – curious though what you mean by ‘there’s a lot of you in it’ – is it a style/ color palette/ postprocessing thing, or something else?

      • You’re welcome! I’m not sure I can put it into words … Of course, there is your technical cleanliness and color palette. I know you are going for accurate color, but it seems that there are certain qualities of colors that show up more often in your pictures. Maybe your eye is attracted to them, and people think you have a certain look because of that?

        Anyway, the 3 main things for me are how you balance your composition, the kinds of foreground-background relationships you make, and how you combine organic and artificial lines and textures. In my favorite examples of your balances, it’s almost on the verge of unbalancing but not obviously so. It’s using unlike shapes and different masses that don’t look like they’d balance but they do. I see this in Mechanical objects, Leaving, and Netbooks most obviously here. It’s a subtle level of abstraction, because to do this (at least for me), I have to forget what something is in a photo, and just concentrate on its form and mass, and then try to balance that out with the other blobs in the picture. If you’re really good, then what those things actually are (people, buildings, trees, etc.) are also meaningful to the picture, but I’ll take a balanced array of blobs right now. 🙂

        The foreground-background relationship is my favorite thing that you do, to the point that it’s made me consider the composition of my photos now from that perspective first. Another way of putting it is that you do really interesting stuff for composition by using the 2D projection of the 3D scene. I think it’s a very idiomatic to photography, this 2D projection thing, but besides parlor tricks like forced perspective, I’m not sure many people have investigated this very much. The other interesting thing that you do with this I noticed was when you first got the Otus. There were wide-looking perspectives, and tele-looking perspectives, all from the same lens! Only the clouds are free is a wide-feeling perspective, and the Taiwan street architectural shots feel very tele to me. As you know, it came down to how you showed the relationship of the foreground to the background.

        National colors, Cuba’s larder, and Mechanical objects are some examples of this foreground-background control. Not good enough is another one, and this one balances the composition with the out-of-focus head. Timing seems very tricky in that shot! I see this more obviously in your abstract architectural stuff. Your Japanese street photos recently that some people called a bunch of snapshots of people on their cell phones is a great example of this used for framing, but it’s kind of a subtle thing, and I think it’s more of a photographer’s photograph that mostly people who have tried to do the same thing would appreciate.

        The question asked is a good example of the organic-artificial combo but I see this very clearly in your pictures of trees or clouds combined with buildings, and the combinations are often not the obvious ones. Contemplation is very interesting with this way too. The Japanese street photo series is also a good example of this for me.

        That’s what I see. I hope I’m not too far out in left field! Some of this is probably due to what I’m working on in my own photography, so maybe I notice the things I’m working on right now more than other things.

        • Thank you – I’m glad it seems that most of my intention is coming through! The natural-artificial juxtapositions are deliberate, and foreground-background relationships are always very important. It isn’t the Otus itself that let me do that, it’s the normal focal length: it can be interpreted as a tele or a wide depending on foreground-subject-background distance and relationship to each other, and on an absolute scale.

  11. great as usual! Color and lights are delightful

  12. Hi Ming, I really loved this photoessay. As a college student living in Miami, Florida I have been exposed to the wonders of Cuban culture. Many of my friends and associates are Cuban and I could not help but reflect on them as I scrolled through the images. Wonderful shots – I think you really captured the essence of everyday Cuba. 🙂

  13. Looking at the color pictures again and again… there’s something that reminds me of the saturation and transparency we see with diapositive film. Kodachrome 25 comes to mind.
    That film among other diapositive films always showed a consistency the way colors were rendered. Ming it seems you are able to replicate it to the highest mark.
    I wish I could master this artistic control. It is simply just to enjoy and admire.

  14. Rosa Michaels says:

    Wow ! Your love of Cuba really shines through in this series .

  15. Such heartfelt essay. Beautiful photos

  16. Fist, second and third shots are my favorites. Thanks!

  17. Beautiful….really rich detail and colour!

  18. That first image is an award winner!! Very powerful with so many possible stories!! Well done Ming!!

  19. Beautiful. The stunning “One suitcase..,” interesting and engaging “enseuno / netbooks..,” and striking “contemplation” are among my personal favorites.

  20. I too don’t seem to get tired of photos from Cuba. Wondering more and more what I would shoot myself if I ever get the chance to visit. The colors from Cuba, as usual, really stand out, without being manipulated (saturated, etc.), as you’ve indicated. I was struck also by the choice of lenses 55mm and higher. I’m wondering if you’re preparing another set taken with wide angle lenses, 28mm for example.
    Keep them coming, the fact that you back up all of your comments with your own, high quality work keeps us all coming back, almost every day.

    • Go without preconceptions would be my suggestion. I didn’t expect to be quite so taken by the cars, personally. There is another set shot with the GR. 🙂 Visually, I left the two perspectives separate for consistency.

  21. Fab, i never tire of seeing cuba in pictures, great essay!

  22. Ming,
    By far my favorite of the Cuba series. And the first photo in this set. My family is Cuban. Looking at your photos, I can almost smell and hear Cuba. Many thanks.

  23. Hi Ming,

    In some of your recent photoessays (like Australia), I thought that more of the world was starting to look rather “homogenized”, due to international trade, etc. (through no fault of the photographer). In regards to Cuba, there is definitely no fear of that happening…! Talk about photographic riches! The first photo in this group is perhaps my favorite.

    I would have loved to see photos from the 60’s compared to today. Perhaps Cuba is frozen in time?

    In regards to your cropping or format choices, how do you feel about 4:3, compared to 16:9 or even the standard 3:2…? I’m finding I prefer 4:3 or 16:9, it seems that it is easier to fill and keep the eye moving.

    It is nice for the Mfr’s to give us cropping choices to pre-visualize; however, 3:2 seems a little long in the tooth.

    • I feel that homogenisation too. Cuba has been so isolated for so long that there’s no chance of that happening – the difference is obvious, and feels obvious. I enjoyed it immensely.

      Format choices: whatever works for the subject. I don’t feel constricted by the viewfinder.

  24. So great, Ming! Ah, how I miss Cuba.

  25. Bryan Gonzalvo says:

    All of your images from Cuba, including this set, are outstanding! I learn so much from your compositions, use of shadows, and depth of field choices. Thank you for sharing your talent.

  26. albertopr says:

    Great and wonderful!!!

  27. Congrats on some amazing work! It’s exciting to see these colors. The first three and daily bread are my favorites.

  28. John weeks says:

    Just beautiful…

  29. As always you are a thousand and one steps above me in this kind of thing. The only picture that didn’t send me was the handing meat one, which to me is a cliche or dull theme and gave me a different emotional response, yet all the rest of the grouping just sing. I would suppose that the quality of the light makes the colors almost glow like pastels. “Against the Rules” reminded me of Sam Abell’s way of anticipating a photo by simply waiting for it to happen– there’s the arrow, now there she is departing. Finally and I wish I could put it into words but, sometimes you use central-weighted compositional design and that says something… To me the setting aside of the rule of thirds seems to convey urgency– like a moment that is very fleeting and here we are stealing this glance. There is a kind of mental tug of war like that. Such messes with the mind of the viewer. You’re hitting on different levels all at once.
    Another observation is that you have little fear (or none). You are in these photos obliquely by allowing for the unknown person to stare back at you through your lens– not always happy, these strangers, but showing real feelings. It plays with the concept of memory as if to say, “do I really want to be remembering this (the subject thinking that) or does this moment really even matter…”
    You seems to say back, this does matter.

    • Thank you. Yes, no fear – for whatever people say about me not shooting street or engaging the subject, it’s a choice, not an inability. But for these, the people needed to be the stars, not the environment.

      • liramusic says:

        The green car is phenomenal. I think clearly your work is “outta sight.” One critique (eeekk, a what?) would be to say that for me, and in this in my own small world of thought, no survey of life in a tropical place could leave out music: photos of anything music. Oh this is just me, though. The standart themes are of clothing, food. Hey I have a question for you. Did you say that your interest in documentary work has diminished? If so, why? I wondered why or what seems more interesting.

        • Not a critique at all: a valid point from a subjective perspective, which is absolutely what photograph is in the first place. Roger did a much better job of the music scene than I did; I admit to being almost completely ignorant there. It’s difficult to shoot what you don’t really understand or have a feel for…

          Yes, my interest in the usual ‘street photography documentary’ and photojournalism has diminished simply because I’ve done so much of it in the past. Much in the same way I don’t shoot watches that often anymore, either. Time for new challenges 🙂

  30. Great work Ming. Particularly like first image, larder and waiting. How do you find the D800 Otus combo for street work? Perhaps not as easy as a smaller camera but worthwhile for the brilliant results?

    • Thanks Ian. It’s easy enough once you get used to the focusing; the results outweigh all of the inconvenience though.

      • The image quality really comes through clearly and immediately on these. Nice!

        It looks like the OMD is no longer in your tool box for this kind of shooting?

        • Thanks – though I still think at web sizes, most modern cameras look the same other than for DOF differences…

          The OMD (or any M4/3 camera) doesn’t deliver enough resolution for Ultraprinting.

  31. Luis Fornero says:

    Very nice photos ! I like when you put people in the frame, and these pictures makes me imagine how the live there, how are they lives although I have never been in cuba. Light and colours are outstanding, very nice work as always. I like specially this one:

  32. A beautiful set…though a sad one for me as I didn’t make it to Cuba to see you immersed in a world new to your eyes. The images that have come back are everything I would have hoped for…stunning.

  33. Lovely colors! Nice work Ming.

  34. Nice series of pictures. Look forward to Part two.

  35. Splendid set of photos. Especially love the first one, as well as “Mechanical objects mirror their owners” which is excellent timing.

  36. Wow! Wonderful pictures!

  37. Br4ceYourself says:

    Simply amazing.

  38. Beyond wonderful set Ming! Fantastic…

  39. This series of photos leaves me with a feeling *How I would have loved I had shot those*. The photos are so strong they hardly need a written story behind them. Perhaps why your introduction is short?
    Picture no 1 makes my day or perhaps my week 🙂

  40. Hello Ming,

    a truly wonderful set! I would love to see you shoot more people and their emotions – as from the content side this is what I shoot most as an amateur, it just inspires seeing the level of skill and observation you have applied to the subject one loves!

    Keep up the great work,


    • Thanks. I shot plenty of documentary work earlier in my career – this set and this set on Flickr, for instance. I’m moving away from that now because it doesn’t suit my artistic intentions nor does it interest me.

  41. Very nice set. There’s something about the first shot that really draws me in, though—the mood, the isolation (both in terms of the framing and, existentially, the subject), and the color palette are all compelling.

  42. Another strong set Ming. Can see you had a great time making these images. Seems somewhat mandatory to shoot colour in Cuba.

    • Thanks Dan. Yes, Cuba in mono works, but it loses the feel and mood of color…especially if that color is accurate.

      • Cuba, like Hispaniola (or even to a lesser extent Miami Beach), has those wonderful pastel shades, that — when combined with the old patina from so many period buildings — are so visually compelling. Drop an interesting human subject into the frame, and it’s hard to go wrong.

      • There’s a few situations where monotheism in photography fails or in any case is too restrictive a discipline to bear. Just like in India, a richer and varied pantheistic worldview is the essence of the place! plus faded-by-the-climate-and-no-maintenance palettes, bring that on….

        • Absolutely!

          • So, would you leave a Monochrom behind?
            It takes guts to do BW in places such as Cuba, but possibly also it would separate your work from the easy colorists (and I’m not thinking David Harvey of course!)
            And then again, consistency, consistency

            • Yes I would, because I can now get similar results out of my usual cameras. Plus I wouldn’t buy one anyway – it costs more than a 645Z here, and isn’t anywhere as good.

  43. Amazing photos!!

  44. gordon frederick says:

    the first shot reminds me of john lee hooker.

  45. Dustin Gilbert says:

    First, third, and last shots. Win. Love it. Also the woman at the salon is intriguing.

    Love the colors of Cuba from your photos. Shows age.

    Thanks again Ming for sharing your work.

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