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Reimagining Cuba

Normalization will end our self-imposed isolation

By Frank Van Riper

Photography Columnist


           It is June thirty years ago, at the start of the 1984 presidential campaign, and I am in Havana with Jesse Jackson.

               The outspoken civil rights leader and preacher--for years a symbol of black political activism—had announced for president the previous November, and though no one gave him any chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination, Jackson was determined to generate as much interest, ink and airtime as he could.

               And we in the press were happy to oblige this colorful preacher/politician. Jackson had embarked on a one man “peace mission” to Latin America that, over the course of a busy week would see him confer with leaders of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama and, of course, Cuba, in the person of El Jefe himself, Fidel Castro.

               The memories of Jesse’s Flying Circus—for it in no way resembled a conventional presidential campaign trip—came flooding back to me after President Obama’s surprising, long overdue and politically astute announcement normalizing relations with Cuba after more than 50 years of largely fruitless political and economic isolation imposed by a US trade and travel embargo against the tiny communist nation. The embargo (“El Bloqueo” ) was imposed by President John F. Kennedy on October 19, 1960 after Castro’s revolution deposed the regime of  dictator Fulgencio Batista and nationalized a host of US-owned businesses and interests. Two years later, relations worsened with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, during which Kennedy actually did blockade Cuba over the presence of Russian missiles just 90 miles off the American coast.


On the Jackson plane after a long day of stumping through Latin America 30 years ago. We have just arrived in Nicaragua--and yes, that's all sweat. credit: Fred Barnes


               Our own travels through Latin America in ‘84, were for the most part seat-of-the pants, though Jackson’s staff at least made arrangements for hotel accommodations. From the control house of the Panama Canal we joined Jackson as he watched ships passing through that great human-engineered waterway; we were manhandled by what seemed like teenagers with machine guns in Managua; we passed starving peasants leading starving horses along roads in El Salvador. In Panama City, on a local’s recommendation, I had one of the best fish stews I ever tasted—even if it looked like grey dishwater. Another time, keeping my seatmate Fred Barnes company, I had a Big Mac at a Panamanian McDonald’s—because Fred was afraid to eat anything else. And twice we lighted on Havana to see firsthand the city made famous by, among others, Ernest Hemingway, the Damon Runyon-inspired musical “Guys and Dolls,” and the American gangster Meyer Lansky. 

               Then, as now, Havana displayed an air of genteel ruin, rivaled perhaps only by that of Venice in Italy. Though, in fairnesss, Venice is a thriving international cultural and artistic center compared to the “Habana Vieja” of 1984.

               We stayed at the Hotel Habana Libre, once a landmark Hilton and a hub of the thriving Post-World War 2 tourist and gambling trade that helped make silent partners like Meyer Lansky and his fellow Mafiosi (working with the blessing of the Batista government) very, very wealthy. But instead of the smell of money, the old Hilton now reeked of mold. Though my room had a great view of the city, the air conditioning never worked and the brown rust stains in the bathtub competed with the damp moldy carpeting.

               And to pay for all this luxury we had to have cash: no credit cards accepted. The Cubanos wanted hard US currency. Even phone calls to the US when we filed our stories were closely monitored—not necessarily for content, but for length: we were paying by the minute—all in dolares Americanos.

               Despite the city’s unarguable tropical beauty and grace—even in the crumbling parts—one of my strongest impressions was of dusty plastic flowers on empty pharmacy shelves. Wandering along the sunny streets near the hotel one free afternoon, I happened into a drugstore—the kind of place that in the US would be brimful of stuff: from patent medicines to cosmetics; from magazines to candy. Here, though, there were only plastic flowers covered with dust from taking up space for so long on empty shelves.


Cubans wait in line at bakery for free government-issued bread. Despite empty shelves, food generally is plentiful in Cuba, though money is not. © Erica Wissolik


               For many years—and even now to most Americans—this image of a crumbling, economically depressed and politically repressed Cuba has been the default picture of the place. And it is accurate, but only to an extent. Two friends and colleagues, photographers Erica Wissolik and Karen Keating, have created beautiful portfolios of current life in Cuba, the former in color, the latter in black and white. Each reflects a country struggling with poverty, yet each can’t help also to depict a vibrant, multi-ethnic people finding ways to get by, often ingeniously.

               [Example: More than ten years after my own 1984 visit to Havana, Cuban/Italian photographer Manuello Paganelli traveled there to photograph and to see relatives. I ran his story and photos in a magazine I was editing at the time and always remembered this anecdote told by one of Manuello’s friends about the old US gas guzzlers that still are in evidence on Cuban streets: “My uncle used to have a ’52 Oldsmobile and his radiator went bad back in the early 70s. You know what he did? He took the thing off, replaced it with an old metal gas can that he had cut some holes in…hooked up the hoses and connected it….The car worked like that for almost 12 years, then he gave it to his oldest son…”]

               Noted photographer David Middleton, who has taught photo workshops in Cuba:  "The people are Cuba's most valuable natural resource. They are far and away the most friendly, welcoming and genuine people I have ever met….Cuba is a country of hearts, strong legs, old bones and empty pockets."


It doesn't get any more welcoming than this. Charming shot of Cuban baby is from Karen Keating's book "Cubans: Watching and Waiting." © Karen Keating


               Now, though, with the normalization of US-Cuban relations, that all may change.

               Or not. Remember: the communist Cuba of Fidel (and now Raul) Castro is a very closed system that only recently has allowed some measure of capitalism to bolster an economy that no longer can rely on tons of aid money from the once-formidable, now defunct, Soviet Union. For any number of reasons, it is not likely that Cubanos who love their strong delicious café con leche every morning will soon abandon it for a soymilk latte at a new Starbucks on the corner of Avenida de la Revolucion.

               “It’s not that Cubans want to leave Cuba,” noted Erica Wissolik.  “They love that place. They simply want to participate.  And they want to be able to buy things that we take for granted. While there is no shortage of wonderful tropical foods, they can't buy a simple ballpoint pen.  I included a breadline photo.  And it can be misleading, making a viewer think that food is hard to come by.  On the contrary.  Its plentiful.  No one goes hungry.  It’s just that if you want your free government-issued bread and eggs, you need to stand in line on the days that it’s distributed. If you have money, you can buy it anytime.” [Erica’s photos of a struggling Cuban dance troupe will be featured in next April’s “Mirror to the World” documentary photography show that I curate every year at PhotoWorks in Glen Echo Park, Md.]


What this Havana dance troupe lacks in equipment it makes up for with skill and enthusiasm. © Erica Wissolik


               So too do Karen Keating’s images reflect life among crumbling buildings in Havana, and campesinos working hard and by hand in the countryside. The Castro regime long has been sensitive to depictions of life that “do not accurately reflect the achievements of the revolution” (read: poor people in poor surroundings) but even that may be changing. 

               “I talked with Cuban photographers whom I have known since my trip in 2002 and in 2011 (my last trip to the island.) Life was becoming easier for them. Easier in the sense of being able to work more openly and obtain supplies, especially from Toronto.  The digital supplies are easier to get and there is less restriction on photographers receiving them than was the case with darkroom supplies.  Small camera shops are bringing in good money from tourists and thus the Cuban government was receiving more tax revenue and becoming more supportive of photography as a source of revenue for the government.  Money, even in Cuba, talks!”

               She went on: “My hurdles to photographing in Cuba were primarily getting into the country.  Once on the island I always felt comfortable shooting and was never bothered.  Photographing outside of Havana was very easy, too.”


Haunting urban scene makes skilled use of light and shadow in old Havana. © Karen Keating


               Karen’s excellent book, Cubans: Watching and Waiting ($35) can be purchased directly from her: or through the Multiple Exposures Gallery in Old Town Alexandria, Va.:

                “There are soooo many misconceptions about Cuba,” declared Erica Wissolik:

                 “--the island has already had tons of tourists, but they are EVERYBODY but Americans. 

               --Credit cards are accepted and used.  It’s only Americans who can't use them. When I was checking out of my big fabulous Spanish-owned hotel, the Swede in front of me was paying his bill with a VISA card.  I, on the other hand, merely needed to sign out because our bill was paid via an account in Mexico since the dollars couldn't flow directly to Cuba.

               --US dollars can be brought into the country and you can spend them.  You are allowed to buy and bring back art, music, anything ‘educational.’  Americans are prohibited ONLY from buying alcohol and tobacco.  I exchanged my US dollars for Cuban CUCs, the currency used by foreigners.  There's a second currency for locals.


Cuban schoolgirls. Note fresh uniforms, clean streets, neat houses--and lovingly kept US gas guzzler at the curb. © Erica Wissolik


                --Cubans have no problem badmouthing Castro. 

                --No one watches you when you move around the country.  We were free to talk to anyone and enter their homes.  And they are not shy or worried about talking to Americans.

               --They have access to the internet.  It’s US sites that block the availability.  For example: I could read my Google mail, but I couldn't check my bank account. When I got back, I sent an email and received a response from a Cuban.  However, they can only use internet cafes, and there is a single state-run ISP.

               --Cubans can travel--unless you're a top doctor or top university professor, etc. Those people are restricted from leaving the country because Castro fears a brain drain.”


Lovely figure study of Cuban teen. Keating, like Wissolik, said she had no trouble shooting on the streetin Cuba. © Karen Keating


               Clearly, it is we who have been isolated from Cuba, not the rest of the world. Photographers like those cited above most often gain access through workshop groups, and/or educational, journalistic or “people-to-people” contacts sanctioned by the US and Cuban governments.

                But will normalization now unleash millions in US development and tourism dollars, overrun the island with snaphooting yanquis, and turn the genteel ruin of parts of Havana into Disneyland south? My bet is no—at least not in the near term. I do expect more luxury cruise ships—laden with adventurous, and now legal, Americans tourists--to increase their runs to the island nation, and further benefit Cuba’s struggling economy.

                What is certain is that any increase in contact between Americans and Cubanos will benefit everyone. It has been far too long.

                 And the photos will be wonderful.



Lubec Photo Workshops at SummerKeys, Lubec, Maine -- Summer, 2015

Daunted by Rockport??


       Spend a week of hands-on learning and location photography with award-winning husband and wife photographer-authors Frank Van Riper and Judith Goodman. Frank and Judy will cover portraiture, landscape and documentary photography during morning instruction, followed by assignments in multiple locations including Quoddy Head State Park, Campobello Island, NB and the colorful town of Lubec itself. Daily critiques and one-on-one instruction. NO entrance requirement. Minimum age for attendance is 16. Maximum number of students each week is nine. Students supply their own digital camera.

       The Lubec Photo Workshops debuted in 2009 and were a huge success for their low-key, no-pressure atmosphere. Classes fill early.

       New 2015 workshop dates are: July 6-10; July 20-24; August 3-7; August 17-21.

        Tuition payable through the SummerKeys Music Workshops:   

Or contact us:

        Come photograph in one of the most beautiful spots on earth!




The Umbria Photo Workshops:

October 10-16, 2015

(waiting list available)



Join internationally acclaimed husband and wife photographers Frank Van Riper and Judith Goodman for weeklong photographic workshops under glorious Fall skies in one of Italy’s most beautiful regions. Note: Workshops are limited to only six participants and include lodging at the spacious and inviting Villa Fattoria del Gelso in Cannara.

Frank and Judy, authors of the award-winning book Serenissima: Venice in Winter, will share their image-making techniques with a small group during a simpatico, low-key week covering everything from landscape photography in the verdant hills of Umbria, to nighttime photography using available and artificial light, to location portraiture in Umbria's closely held olive fields and vineyards.

Small class size assures individual critique and instruction.

Participants will travel by guided excursion to several of Umbria’s storied hill towns, including Montefalco, Bevagna and Assisi, and receive individual attention during daily critiques.

Package includes six nights in the fully restored 18th century villa Fattoria Del Gelso in Cannara, located on a 40-hectare working farm literally walking distance from colorful shops and restaurants and centrally located in the shadow of Assisi.

This is a trip designed for relaxed learning and sightseeing via foot, bicycle and van, taught by two experienced location photographers whose work has been exhibited in and acquired by major museums in the United States. Frank and Judy are molto simpatico teachers who will turn your photographic vacation into a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Fee includes villa accommodations, all breakfasts, daily wine and antipasto Happy Hour, welcome and farewell dinner, pizza night, transportation by private van. No entrance requirements beyond a love of photography, good food and fine wine. For details: go to http// or contact us directly at



Van Riper Named to Communications Hall of Fame


Frank Van Riper addresses CCNY Communications Alumni at National Arts Club in Manhattan after induction into Communications Alumni Hall of Fame, May 2011.   (c) Judith Goodman

[Copyright Frank Van Riper. All Rights Reserved.  Published 1/15]