Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Spied in Havana

An old U.S. car, being used as a taxi, drives along a street in Havana, Cuba. Cubans prize their old cars, which they have kept running despite the decades-long trade blockade imposed by the U.S. government.

Digital technology has definite advantages over film. I learned about one of them while shooting in Cuba a few years ago. I was interested in capturing images of the iconic old cars that populate the island’s streets, and shot a variety of daytime photos. I thought I’d also try shooting them at night, using a technique called “rear curtain flash”, which is basically a lengthy exposure of a few seconds where the flash fires at the end of the shutter opening, rather than at the beginning as is normally the case. So a couple of evenings I went out and photographed some old cars as they drove by. One of the things that results from this is that the headlights streak out behind the front of the car, making it appear as though the car is moving forward. (Front curtain flash is the reverse, something your brain would interpret as the car moving backwards.) One evening I tried doing it on a residential street near the home where I was staying. I set up the tripod and starting shooting away as the cars drove by. After about ten minutes, a police car came and two officers got out to ask me what I was doing. After a while it became clear from our conversation that immediately across the street from me was an office of some sort of security agency, and the officers had been dispatched because I was obviously a foreign spy capturing valuable information. They were nice about it, but they said they’d have to take me in for questioning. My explanation of what I was doing didn’t convince them, and then I showed them, on the LCD screen on the back of the camera, some of the images I’d been capturing. Ahah! Now they got it. I think they were a bit disappointed I wasn’t a spy, because capturing me might have gotten them a promotion. Instead, they spent more than a half hour on the radio trying to convince their superiors that I was not a spy. It was fun to listen to them explain over the radio exactly what I’d been doing. The guy on the other end of the conversation wasn’t convinced, probably hoping for a promotion himself, and finally patched the radio conversation on to a superior officer. So the police officers who’d caught me had to explain all over again what I was up to. It was pretty funny, and the two officers were soon laughing with me. But I got bored after a while, and asked if I could continue taking photos. No problem, they said. So I did, my tripod standing at the back of their patrol car, until finally they received permission to let me go, though they did ask me to move down the street a couple of blocks. . . As it turns out, none of the photos turned out all that well, but that’s because I’m a crappy photographer, not to mention a rather bumbling spy. . . Yet imagine this whole scenario back in the days of film, when there was no immediate feedback, no show and tell on the back of the box. That night probably wouldn’t have ended the same. Let’s hear it for technology! . . By the way, Cuba is a wonderful place to photograph. The U.S. blockade has left it rather worn in places, which adds to its charm, and the Cuban people are some of the friendliest you’ll find anywhere (perhaps because they’ve been spared the worst ravages of mass U.S. tourism). I’m glad the Obama administration is finally moving, albeit slowly, to make travel there easier for U.S. citizens. I’ve gone to Cuba several times, but never asked permission of my government because as a journalist I am exempt from the stupid Trading with the Enemy Act, which forbids U.S. citizens from spending money in Cuba, effectively prohibiting them from going. I’ve been able to photograph just about anywhere I wished. The one exception was when I had dinner with Fidel, an encounter I described briefly in a blog post last year.

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