BlackRapid Guest Post by Clay Cook

CUBA

Feel free to enjoy this track while you read 😉

“HOW WAS CUBA?”

When I’m asked “How was Cuba?” unlike most countries I’ve visited, it’s pretty simple to explain the cool cars and architecture. What isn’t easy is to explain – the people, fashion and culture. It’s an explosion of race, age and color.

Upon landing in Cuba for the first time, I didn’t feel a sense of danger or the need for steadfast movement like I had in Africa and India. We were met with open arms and welcomed like superstars. I was instantly enthralled with the untouched Cuban history and culture.

About two weeks after my return from India, I received a call from the Publisher of the magazine “The Voice Of Louisville” regarding a project in Havana, Cuba for Blue Equity who had established some business roots in Havana. Blue Equity has a number of business projects in Havana making progress and they needed some strong content to move forward. The project consisted of capturing a twenty page fashion editorial as well as a large feature on the rich culture, communist government and beautiful society. The production called for two five-day trips. The first mission would be to scout locations, meet and cast talent and lock down hanging details. The second trip would be the actual production. 

I’VE SEEN A LOT OF STUNNING LANDSCAPES, BUT THIS TOPPED THE LIST

Upon arrival in the Havana airport, we were met with a breath of hot weather, but a bleak overcast sky. I didn’t know what to think; I just followed the pack and hung towards the back of the line. We pushed through customs and after a short wait, we had our bags and loaded everything into a 9-passenger van, guided by our driver, Rafi.

I quickly learned that Cuba was a visual paradise. The color, texture, automobiles and landscape was overwhelming; I didn’t know where to focus. The sun began to peak through the clouds and set into the horizon, which covered everything with a red-orange blanket of color. We pulled to a roundabout and arrived at The Saratoga Hotel located across the street from the Parque de la Fraternidad located in central Havana. Shockingly, our hotel was incredibly luxurious. I checked in, changed clothes and headed up to the rooftop to catch a sunset view and cocktail. I was blown away. I’ve seen a lot of stunning landscapes, but this topped the list. I felt a blast of untapped energy and vibrance.

THE PEOPLE OF CUBA HAVE A YEARN TO GROW

The people of Cuba have a yearn to grow. The island is plentiful, with a lot of room to change. The majority of the Cuban people seem to be happy about the possibility of the trade embargo being lifted and the tourism restrictions being alleviated. Since the Castro revolution in 1959, Cuba has been locked into their own civilization without influence the exception of their communist relationship with Russia.

The aesthetic of the architecture was gorgeous, but confused; worn Spanish neoclassical, odd North American art-deco and boring rectangular superstructures covered in a bland shade of beige introduced by Soviet Union ideals. The streets are electrifying; classic cars sputter from destination to destination without traffic restrictions. With the revolution, import from North America ceased, so classic cars are commonplace and modern cars are considered a luxury.

WE HAD TO RELY ON THE HARD LIGHT OF THE SUN

The team at Digital Transitions provided us a Phase One 645DF with a IQ250 digital back along with a Schneider Kreuznach 40-80mm f/4 zoom lens and a Schneider Kreuznach 110mm f/2.8 static lens. In consideration of using this setup, we made the executive decision that tethering to Capture One was essential. Thanks to my friends at Tether Tools we created the most mobile, small scale, on location tethering system possible. I knew we would be jumping from location to location and we didn’t have the time for an immense amount of setup. With this knowledge, we also knew that carting a lot of lighting would be impractical. The Profoto B2 Location Kit was an obvious choice. We had to rely on the hard light of the sun, it was a risk, but a necessary risk. The B2 head through a Photek Softlighter would provide a soft fill to reduce shadow density caused by the hard sun. I tend to shoot close to what a human eye would see, so for most of the photographs, I shot at a closed aperture(f/6.3 – f/11), I wanted to show off the background and rich culture Havana provided. Also, considering the hard sun, I had to use high speed sync and shoot at a very quick shutter(1/1250 – 1/1600). The Phase One system as well as the Profoto B2 kit, allows for High Speed Sync.

THE SOLDIER UNDER THE TREE WAS THE MUCH-NEEDED CATALYST TO KICK OFF A CALM, BUT EFFICIENT SHOOT

The next morning, we hit the ground running. The sun began to soak the city like a warm bath, which designed beautiful lines and shapes on the city streets. Despite a few last minute audibles by the Government Of Cuba and their choice of locations, we adapted to the scenario and landed at our first location, right in the heart of a military base whom had not been advised of our production. We were left to setup, while the rest of the team made sure the hair, makeup, designers and models were moving. Within twenty minutes of setup, we were faced with a series of guards who shut it all down. Fortunately, Zach was able to speak some broken Spanish and make sure everyone remained calm. As we waited for the rest of the team, we had the unique opportunity to speak with a solider who was on a break under a tree canopy. He was just 17-years of age, quiet, collected and had a hint of excitement in his voice. We talked about the influx of tourism, his role in the military and America. This short chat gave me the opportunity to cool-off physically and mentally. The soldier under the tree was the much-needed catalyst to kick off a calm, but efficient shoot.

I WAS IN HEAVEN.

The crew arrived and after quick conversation, we were given the go. Setup and pre-lighting began immediately and within 10 minutes we had the frame. Our beautiful model Naivys Fernandez stepped in front of the lens wearing a colorful loose purple blouse and pants. With the click of the shutter the production began, on a military fortress, overlooking the city of Havana. I was in heaven. But, immediately we had technical problems. The tether wasn’t working properly and we had a storage issue. We pushed through it, without a distraction and resolved the issue by removing one tether cable in the chain to the MacBook Pro. The files couldn’t import onto our backup drive fast enough causing the error. With that problem behind us, I could finally breathe and work magic. I was excited to work with each model. It was refreshing to be in such a new environment with new talent.

The sun was record-breaking hot and my camera was heavy. With all the accessories, it was close to fifteen pounds, which can add up after ten hours of lifting and holding. Despite the camera being secured to my body with a Black Rapid RS-4, by late-afternoon I was pretty beat and my forearm felt like rubber. Although the team stopped for lunch, we decided to keep moving. Each set required about thirty minutes of time with setup and pre-lighting. The models were rolled out like products on a conveyor belt, it was an extremely productive process and very essential. But, it was a challenge to capture models in the right lighting and include the surrounding environment. We wanted the people, we wanted the bustle and we wanted the noise. Sometimes, that required the right amount of patience. We waited for the right moment and the right timing for the story to form.

WE WAITED FOR THE RIGHT MOMENT AND THE RIGHT TIMING FOR THE STORY TO FORM.

IT WAS A BITTERSWEET MOMENT.

With the final look, we had ran out of available locations. We made an about-face and had the opportunity to shoot on the rooftop of a celebrity penthouse. As the sun hit the horizon, the beautiful María Karla Herrera leaned against a gold lion statue to perfectly frame her body against the skyline. I snapped the shutter and we had our cover and the production was a wrap. My body felt like it had been in World War III and my mind was burned. It was a bittersweet moment.

I THINK CUBA CHANGED SOMETHING IN ME

We celebrated the wrap with a late-night party on the roof with all the models, designers, hair stylists, makeup artists, assistants, government officials and advisors. While others cashed out early to catch our early flight, I celebrated into the cool night. The flight home was quiet, sobering and almost sad. I was happy it was over, but upset to be leaving Cuba and all the friends I had made. Cuba is changing day-in and day-out, but I think Cuba changed something in me. It was a breath of fresh air and opened my eyes to how much I truly love photographing people and the art people create. I’m incredibly blessed to have that privilege, every single day.

Enjoy this First Person Shooter – Behind The Scenes video of Clay Cook at work in Cuba.

MORE ON CLAY COOK

Check out more of Clay’s work here. Follow him on Instagram.