I left Cuba with a song stuck in my head. I didn’t know what was being said in the song or how to pronounce the artists name, but I knew the melody. It was everywhere; every nightclub, bar and restaurant. Every waking moment, I would hum the melody and mumble the lyrics as if I knew what the lyrics meant. As I write this post stationed in a coffee shop down the road from my studio, that very song began to play over the loudspeakers and I couldn’t help but smile. My Cuba experience was memorable, not only because of the vibrant and beautiful landscape, but the people, who have really stuck in my mind and overshadowed that song. Its fascinating to see the advancement that Cuba has made because of its newly negotiated relationship with the United States and it’s sweeter to hear a taste of Cuba in a little coffee shop in Kentucky.

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 Voice Of Louisville regarding a project in Havana, Cuba for Blue Equity, LLC who had established some business roots in Havana. 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; game time. When it comes to these types of travel scenarios, I’m skeptical until the flights are booked, but I knew this was the real deal. This was a dream situation that doesn’t come around often for editorial photographers, if ever.

I was in the dark for much of the time leading up to our first trek down to the island. I usually have a great idea of what the target and end goal was for the production. But, a great deal of trust had been placed in my lap on behalf of The Voice Of Louisville, the Government of Cuba and Blue Equity, LLC. I had to own it, I had to deliver, no matter the obstacles that stood in the way.

Getting to the island of Cuba was not an easy flight. It was an all day process from Louisville, Kentucky. A process that included 3 total flights and a solid 10 hours. Although, Cuba is only a 40 minute flight from Miami, the process to get on the flight is arduous and time-consuming. Despite the language barrier, we were able to expedite much of the process based on the relationships that had already been built by the team of Blue Equity, LLC. There is no doubt that we traveled in style, which made the flights easier.

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 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.

Over the course of the next few days, we worked hard during the day and played hard at night. But, my camera stayed by my side at all hours of the day. Occasionally, a photo opportunity presented itself and I took advantage of the moment. Other times, it was production meetings and finding the best possible locations to photograph the fashion. I switched back and forth from “production photographer” to “street photojournalist” in an instant to guarantee I gained the proper content and knowledge we needed. Throughout our time in Cuba, I was able to really start building the foundation required to create this piece. Despite the language barrier, we were able to put the puzzle together with only a few missing pieces. It felt like a tease, but we needed that taste before we swallowed this whale of a project. I left Cuba anxious and uptight but, wise and equipped. The next step was to rally the troops. This would not be a easy creation.

Fortunately, the PhotoPlus Expo took place in New York a week before the production date. I was able to meet my equipment sponsors and chat about the project in person. 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.

The day before we were set to fly out; my assistant Zach and I, checked gear, gaffed labels, charged batteries and prepared the equipment as if we were heading into a war zone. We made sure all cameras, lenses and accessories could be stashed in a Think Tank Photo Airport Security and a Think Tank Photo Airstream, which was meant for carry-on only. We placed our tripods, a small collapsible lightstand, modifiers and other heavy duty equipment into checked luggage.

This shoot was a heavy burden on my back. I had a lot to deliver and a lot of hype to live up to. I mentally prepared for a tough few days and made sure Zach was briefed on the logistics of the production. Zach had to work twice as hard as anyone else. Not only was he responsible for the equipment, he was also responsible for language translation and behind the scenes.

Just in the difference of a month, Cuba was changing. As we shuttled through customs, I noticed everything had a sense of organization and controlled chaos, unlike our last trip. Time was cut in half and we made it to our destination in less then an hour. Because of the influx of tourism, the Saratoga Hotel was booked months in advance, so this time around we stayed at The Atlantic; a high-rise apartment complex with full-service accommodations and an incredible rooftop pool. Once again, I was taken aback and had a moment of reflection. I was truly living out my dreams.

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.

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. 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.

And, fifteen looks later; we were still shooting and I was completely bushed. We wrapped the day on the rocky shoreline with our backs to the Malecón and a crowd of people. I was excited, confident and ready for a cocktail.

We started day-two before sunrise. I wanted to go above and beyond the production requirements and capture some really engaging portraits of the Cuban people. So, we hit the shoreline to capture some of the fisherman along the Malecón as the new day sun hit their backs. We brought along $100 in cash, the Profoto B2 Kit and the Photek Softlighter. The fishermen were gracious and open to a photograph. Of course, it made it easier when we handed them 10 Cuban Pesos, which is about what they would make for a full day of fishing. We ended up walking about 4 miles down the Malecón back to The Atlantic just in time for a quick breakfast with the crew. They had no idea Zach and I had left, alone.

We were faced with a serious technical issue right out of the gate. The tether completely failed due to a bad cable and we had no backup cable to spare. Fortunately, the Phase One IQ250 provides a wireless tether and allows connection to Capture Pilot on an iPad. Despite the problem, we breezed through the day knocking out set after set. I was challenged and put in a few uncomfortable scenes, but that unrest is needed and is very normal for a shoot of this magnitude. I wanted to keep the look consistent and have the model in hard light for every shot. But, I soon found that to be an impossibility with the movement of the sun and the sheer amount of looks we had to capture. My intuition kicked in and I lit a few sets softly, which provided a nice contrast to the other images in the editorial. It’s a melting pot of style, which is very similar to the fashion and culture of Cuba.

With the final look, we had ran out of available locations. We made an about-face and decided to shoot on the rooftop of The Atlantic. 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.

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 it 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.

A very special thanks to the team that made “La Mirada de Belleza” possible.

Photography: Clay Cook
Photography Assistant: Zach Erwin
Additional Processing: Jordan Hartley
Publishing: Jonathan Blue, Tracy Blue
Creative Directon & Style: Lori Kommor
Cuba Director: Jorge Luis Fria
Production: Clarissa Perez, Anotnio Hernandez, Jessie Fraga, Grises Esobar
Production Assistant: Juan Reffreger, Rob Penta, Cordt Huneke
Finance: Anarlyn Olivia, Ivo Zuaznavar
Style: Leo Leon, Oscar Gonzalez Puildo
Style Assistant: Yeny Rodriguez, Barbara Giselsa Rodriguez
Designer: Jacqueline Fumero, Jose Luis Gonzalez, Juan Carlos Lopez, Carmen Flot, Roly Rius, Emiliano Nelson, Mario Freixas, Emiliano Nelson, Ismael de la Caridad
Model: Laura Pupo, Laura Ortega, Jorge Perez, Ivis Gonzalez, Maria Karla Herrera, Miguel Gonzalez, Yessica Borroto, Naivys Fernandez