Why Traveling to Cuba Without Any Assignments Was One of the Best Career Decisions I’ve Made

By Mich Cardin August 27th, 2015

It was morning, and I was having a panic attack in the bathroom of my hotel because, for at least 10 minutes, I convinced myself that I had forgotten my camera’s battery charger.

“Here’s the thing,” I imagined telling my grandchildren, “I made it to pre-McDonald’s Havana but just have these crappy iPhone photos to show you.”

If this were New York or any other first-world city, I could’ve walked a few blocks and restocked. But this was Cuba, the land of flip phones and pre-paid minutes. Connecting to the Internet consisted of waiting for a guy to drop off eight-dollar connection cards or sitting in the packed room at the Hotel Nacional while impatient tourists asked for the Wi-Fi code.

The lack of modern technology can make this place seem like a nightmare at first. But once you find ways around that, it’s a paradise for reporters and photographers—a time capsule with hundreds of untapped stories and images.

At the time, I wasn’t under the thumb of an editor or any assignment—but not for lack of trying. Before I left, I reached out to both current and new editors. Press still needs permission from the Cuban government, which takes a near-lifetime unless you’re staff at The Washington Post. I’m a freelance fashion journalist, op-ed writer, and documentary photographer who hasn’t been a news reporter for more than two years. And I have zero international work experience.

The typical response I received from editors? “Sure. Reach out when you get back.”

This, combined with not hearing back from the Cuban government, almost made the trip a bust. But then I got word.

Obama’s plan for renewed relations with the island was still in limbo. I had a small window of time. I decided the rare opportunity to advance my career by reporting in an undeveloped country on the brink of change outweighed missing two weeks of deadlines and whatever other challenges the trip would impose. I would never forgive myself if I didn’t book that flight.

Because of my arts journalism background, I was invited by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba to photograph and interview their dancers. That was my first stop, which proved to be a microcosm for most of the country.

The floor of the dancers’ training grounds was torn up, and you could see the sky through the ceiling. They talked of little access to dance necessities and how their highly educated parents make next to nothing. They swore to never leave, because how could they when the government had paid their entire way? I left with hundreds of candid photos and iPhone recordings of dancers talking politics.

That day turned out to be one of the most moving experiences I’ve encountered. More importantly, it’s given me the opportunity to possibly show my photos at a city gallery (a dream goal), and some of my favorite publications have expressed interest in the controversial political-arts angle.

With no pressure or schedule of set assignments, my curiosity dictated the rest of my shooting and story scouting. And because I was alone, everyone talked to me. (Nobody spoke English, but I got by with rusty college-level Spanish.)

I put on sneakers and purposely got lost. As a documentary photographer, I always want to get as close as possible to locals in their daily lives. I knew this would produce the most coveted photo series, as opposed to shooting the skyline or Malecon, which wouldn’t tell as much of a story five years from now. I shot the expressions of domino players in parks, bodega and restaurant owners, street vendors, taxi drivers, students, and government officials.

While I stayed in a hotel the first night to get acclimated, I spent the rest of the week at a casa particular, or a rented room in someone’s home. I knew gaining the trust of a local family could lead to intimate photos and some in-depth perspectives that I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise.

I stayed up all night with Tania, the family’s matriarch, discussing Cuba’s cultural and political future. Our conversation ultimately led to a piece, still in-progress, about how locals view the coming changes to their country and sparked an idea about casa particulares owners earning supplemental income in a failing economy.

Tania’s daughter, who was traveling for work at the time, happens to be an art historian and outspoken feminist and liberal who organizes Havana’s famed Biennial. Learning about her life resulted in an article I’m working on for a woman’s business journal.

And then there was Yosemel—a hotel employee who helped me with local recommendations on my first day. He was divorced, with a young child, and lived with and supported his parents on the outskirts of the city. When he discovered I was a journalist, he invited me to take a thirty-minute rocky bus ride to meet them.

While I was taught early on that reporters should refrain from opinions and emotions, I almost lost it upon seeing the condition of his home and how many family members share it. The image of his brother lifting rusty weights in their “gym,” which was an open-air wood platform surrounded by overgrown grass and flies in the middle of their backyard, will stick with me.

Yosemel earned in a month what working-class Americans make in an hour—and talking with him inspired a story on rural commuters working multiple jobs with capped paychecks that are currently being eaten up by government agencies.

I only dealt with resistance when I showed up at the doorstep of some government departments trying to find contacts and leads. I expected this, since no interview or appointment had been set up by a specific publication. And Cuban officials are obviously more tight-lipped than civilians. (I wouldn’t have even made it through the gates without my press visa.)

But it didn’t matter. I immersed myself with the locals, which resulted in a ton of material.

The greatest accomplishment from the trip has been recent communication with a Cuban-American entrepreneur who owns a publication that covers culture and politics in Cuba and Miami. After reaching out and discussing my interest, I found out he is looking for American reporters who are familiar with Cuba. I wouldn’t have received a response at all had I not traveled there and had the clips and photos to prove it.

One of my current editors even had me write an extensive travel guide for Americans heading to Havana.

While some of these stories and potential opportunities are still in progress, the response from editors has already exceeded my initial expectations. I can now add foreign reporting and photojournalism to my list of skills and experiences, which was my ultimate goal.

Was a lot of this luck? Maybe. It was the right timing given our country’s increasing obsession with Cuba, and I had the work freedom and extra cash to take the trip. I was also fortunate that Cuba is an inexpensive country and that I know a decent amount of Spanish.

But regardless of luck and circumstance, I fought for it. I trusted my skills enough to know that I could turn the trip into a photo series and multiple articles that would benefit my career.

I was always taught by mentors to hustle—to constantly throw out pitches and go after new publications. I now realize that taking on solo projects without waiting for the nod from editors, whenever possible, is just as important—for professional and personal gain—no matter how far-fetched and irrational they seem at first.

The nature of freelance journalism is often based on instinct and impulse. And my gut said go.

Image by Afronova
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