Photoessay: May Day in Havana

_8A13284 copy
Against the crowd

And now for something a bit different, both from an experiential standpoint and a content one. As part of the Havana Masterclass, I arranged a massive demonstration of communism to create a realistic photojournalistic scenario we attended the 1st of May parade at Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana – perhaps the biggest socialist event in the entire Cuban calendar. Rather than being observers of the parade, as I’d expected, we got sucked into the enormous number of participants – I would say easily in the hundreds of thousands, covering the entire length and width of Plaza de la Revolucion and beyond. And as you are no doubt aware, the best images are made when you’re not just watching it, but actually in it.

_G006196 copy
En route

Such events are challenging for many reasons – firstly, ensuring you don’t get lost/ trampled/ arrested; then from a photographic standpoint, you’ve got to work around everybody else, and you don’t have a lot of space or time to do it. Moments are fleeing, so you always have to be observing in your peripheral vision for opportunities. It’s nearly impossible to use a telephoto because you don’t have the space or stability; windows open and close very quickly, usually faster than your ability to focus. The parade itself is continuously moving and just an enormous mass of people – forget about standing in one spot with a static target and attempting to nail critical manual focus; it’s nearly impossible unless you are zone focusing. But on the plus side, everybody is expecting to be photographed, so there’s no need to be shy or stealthy. You put on your photojournalist hat and just go in.

_G006214 copy
Shadowy guardian

Beyond the parade itself, I wanted to capture the mood of the people outside – before and after; having spoken to a number of locals; we got the distinct impression that the event had been hugely scaled down since the Castro days – it used to be a whole day with millions of people, bused in from around the country. That’s no longer the case in the Raoul period; he doesn’t want to be seen as being wasteful, though therms were still a large number of buses parked around the parade zone bringing people in from surrounding districts. It struck me that whilst there were a lot of Cubans there, there were a surprising number of non-Cubans too – Venezuelans etc. – who seemed happier to be there than the locals. And beyond that, the locals had – at least to me – distinctly different faces in the parade and outside it. There is a feeling of change afoot – the contrast between the public and the private face, the feeling of participation not to stand out – but not entirely wholehearted, either. I tried to capture this feeling of disenfranchisement especially in the military and police, but had to be careful having been warned off photographing several times. I heard Cuban prisons aren’t exactly the best places to post from, and not being on a formal assignment, discretion won over valour.

Normally, I’d shoot this kind of thing with a wide – either 21 or 28mm – and a normal; something in the 50 range. I wanted to see what kinds of images I could make with a telephoto, specifically punching in on individuals and candid emotion rather than getting up close and getting a pose. The D800E and 70-200/4 VR accompanied a Ricoh GR, both of which performed admirably. Enjoy! MT

I still have a couple of places available for the San Francisco (early September) and Venice (late November) Masterclasses…

_8A13036 copy
Nothing ever starts on time in Cuba

_G006288 copy

_G006233 copy
The start of a new era?

_8A13284 copy

_G006337 copy
Wear your pride

_G006234 copy
Looking outwards for progress

_G006364 copy

_8A13273 copy
All comrades welcome

_8A13399 copy
Game face

_8A13152 copy
Heroes of a different era, I/em>

_8A13209 copy
Heroes of a different era, II

_8A13057 copy
Heroes of a different era, III

_G006235 copy

_G006378 copy
Winding down

_8A13421 copy
A different feeling inside

_8A12942 copy
Contemplating while guarding the revolution>

_8A13479 copy
Back to reality


Limited edition Ultraprints of these images and others are available from


Masterclass Venice (November 2014) now open for booking – click here to book or for more info


Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


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


  1. Ming, what settings do you use on the GR for street shooting?

  2. Such great shots, Ming. All the more apparent since I was there and mine just didn’t work out very well that day. Surely one of the most memorable days of my life! So glad to have met you and studied with you!

    • Thanks Roger – I’m sure I saw some great ones from you too that day! Cuba was a very special experience that I certainly will never forget and am very glad to have shared with you all.

  3. Great set Ming!.

  4. Jorge Balarin says:

    Nice photo reportage Ming. Thank you !

  5. Carlos El Sabio says:

    Very different from a lot of your work and very powerful. This essay effected me quite a lot. It is one of the few times I have been so absorbed by the content that I was not studying the technique. The last photo in black and white was the perfect exclamation point summing up the emotion of the series. Many thanks for this one.

  6. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Ming, maybe dressing as a Oncle Sam would help you with this fake cheering parade and the people would warm up to you.

  7. David Caballe says:

    Are you serious? You made this photo serie with a iphone 5s. I cant beleave it. Awsome. It would be a mistake on text…

    _8A11168 copy

  8. Luis Fornero says:

    Great images! Seeing your images, I ask my self why *all* the news about Cuba, only talk about the ones that are against the communism. Making an image form Cuba as it is a big jail with all the people living in this regimen against their wild.
    I live in europe by the way….
    Thanks for sharing !!

    • Thank you! It seems the people don’t seem to be that excited about communism either these days – times are changing; you can feel it there.

  9. Peter Boender says:

    I’d been (eagerly!) awaiting these, and what a treat they are. Thanks Ming!
    I especially like they way you were able to get layering in your pictures by using selective focusing zones.
    Also, I was curious on how you did with the D800E plus 70-200mm f/4 combo. Congrats on the results, which I really appreciate given the circumstances of such a parade day. Not a mean feat!

    • Thanks Peter. Short answer – difficult to track focus and get critical sharpness because both photographer and subject were moving…

  10. Beautiful set, Ming. I particularly like “Wear your pride” and “Untitled”. These for me reflect the local mood you mention in your introduction: people wearing symbols of national pride and yet their facial expressions are express questioning or confusion rather than an assertion of their alleged patriotism.

  11. Excellent Photos Ming! Great that you could be there to capture everything.

  12. Dustin Gilbert says:

    I’ll have to say. Even though they are wonderful images that pose a mood. They do not reveal the large scale that you describe. Or that tinge of emotion thatvyiu hoped for.

    Not really the feeling of mass participation that seems to be happening. Or the yearning of locals. I don’t know. Seems like your photos tame such a meeting.

    • It was actually a fairly tame and orderly gathering considering the number of people there – I was told by other locals later that the fervour of previous years is somewhat diminished, perhaps signalling the people are getting tired of the current regime…

%d bloggers like this: