Learning to Live (with a Camera)

It’s always fun to observe participants attending our photo workshops in Cuba; In the beginning they are all quite amazed—and for the most part surprised—about how easy it is to photograph Cubans. This is whether they are being photographed on the street or elsewhere. Not the least are the participants astounded about how easy it is to even get invited inside Cuban homes and be able to photograph their intimate and private life.

For most of us, it’s quite intimidating to approach strangers on the street with the intention to photograph them. Of course, if you have never done it before, it’s almost nerve wrecking in the beginning, but also for seasoned photographers it can sometimes take some extra courage to face some stranger on the street.

The ease with which Cubans open up themselves for strangers is one of the reasons why Cuba is one of the better places in the world to practice street photography. During our workshops, we more than once experience the joy with which participants discover they can do something they never thought would be possible. As each day goes, they approach strangers more confidently and even carelessly. Towards the end of the workshop, they don’t even think about it any more. We have had participants crying in the beginning of a workshop because they couldn’t manage to face strangers on the street—or so they though—only to lose them at sight later on, whenever they ventured deeper and deeper into homes and places that no one else would think about going.

So it was with this workshop in May, too. We saw it once again, the anxiety of having to get close on the street shifting to excitement in the meeting with complete strangers and in getting to know them through the process of photographing them. As the week pass, we—my colleague and friend, Sven, and I—push them to go closer and closer and even closer.

When participants start to play along with Cuban music or dancing on the street, we are far beyond the pure photographic experience. We talk about life in all its beauty and richness.

Pushing participants closer and closer is one think that we always need to do, Sven and I, in any workshop we teach. As we say, you can never get too close. In a street photography workshop, this is definitely one of our major missions. And then to push the participants to keep shooting, and the shoot some more. We see it time and again; most untrained photographers may capture one, two or at most five images of a scene or a situation. This is hardly getting started! Whenever we are out on the street with the participants, we have to keep forcing them to stay with a situation, almost to exhaustion, to make sure they capture enough frames. You simple don’t know when the best image will appear.

Get closer. Shoot a lot. And finally: don’t look at the camera’s preview screen. That’s the last of our three commandments for participants during a workshop. Too often, photographers need to check what they have captured all while the situation continues—and they lose maybe the best shot. All this is about being prepared, getting the most out of a given situation and make sure not lose “the” photo.

In the late autumn—in November-December—Sven and I will organize a new workshop in Cuba. This will be quite a different experience. We will travel all over Cuba for two weeks, following the footsteps of Fidel and Che’s revolution.

75 thoughts on “Learning to Live (with a Camera)

  1. Learning to live with a camera, indeed! I often feel, with a camera around my neck, like I’ve adorned myself with a billboard. Everyone knows I’m a wannabe photog. That, itself, seems to bring certain expectations with it, at least here in America. And now, with camera phones so prevalent, it seems that lugging a DSLR is even more of a statement. People often ask me if I’m getting good shots. I never know how to respond and I suspect they expect me to show them some stunners. I usually stammer that I’m trying… Photography is more than the nuts and bolts of the camera or the elements of style, as you often point out. It is also about being comfortable in one’s own skin.

    1. When people ask if you are getting good shots just because you carry a DSLR, just tell them that the camera isn’t what makes good photos. It’s kind of a question that feels blindfolded (or maybe is’s the people asking the question). Photography is certainly about being somewhat comfortable, in one way or the other. But it’s also about pushing oneself outside of the box.

  2. I am terrified of street photography. I love to see what others have shot, but It’s impossible to approach someone. Your workshop sounds like a good way to get over that.

  3. “When participants start to play along with Cuban music or dancing on the street, we are far beyond the pure photographic experience. We talk about life in all its beauty and richness.” How fortunate your students were to have this experience! I expect they came home as much better, more confident photographers — and as happier human beings, too. Just wonderful, Otto.

  4. Fun series of images, Otto. Your workshop sounds like fun too. And maybe hard work. 🙂 I am terrible at street photography, mostly because I don’t push myself to do it. I did once, in New Orleans, where the people are so friendly that I wasn’t afraid to ask.

    1. See, it’s partly about finding the right places to start with street photography. And, yes, you are right, a workshop is a lot of work—but also very fun and rewarding for both teachers and participants.

  5. I know of a woman that took a course in Cuba, got over her shyness, thanks to the casualness of the Cuban people and now takes amazing street photography. People are having fun in these photos and taking pic of each other as well as the locals. Interesting process. I like the shot of the participants checking out each other’s work and the woman playing maracas with the guitarist.

  6. I just love that third photo! The look, the grin, you captured on that man’s face is priceless. Terrific!

    Yet as for not checking my photos as I’m shooting them — wow, that would be a challenge. I’m just not able to trust myself that far yet (I’m shooting in manual mode). But it’s a great goal, and I’ll have to think about it.

  7. Hello Otto,
    This workshop and your philosophy towards guiding your students was a delight to read.
    It sounds like an immersive challenge that becomes a beautiful experience. The Cubans sound like warm and welcoming people and you are in a very privileged position. Wishing you well on your next workshop and thank you for sharing this wonderful post 💐🙋🏻

    1. I do look forward to my next workshop. It’s really a lot of fun. It’s challenging, yes, for both teachers and students, but also very rewarding. Thank you for the lovely comment, Di.

      1. I can so understand it’s very rewarding Otto.
        You’re very welcome, re- my comments.
        Take care and until next time 🙋🏻💐

  8. ‘Don’t look at the camera preview’, I so agree with that. Must admit that the idea of street photography and approaching strangers makes me uncomfortable, maybe because I haven’t done it enough. Something to work on.

  9. I like the photo of the woman with the marrocas best. I can imagine your happy students wandering the streets and having experiences they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives. Congrats to you and Sven for spreading fun and knowledge!

  10. The Cuban workshop was clearly a great success for all concerned. The photos you have posted are both revealing and uplifting – they instinctively brought a smile to my face!

  11. What an uplifting and amazing story, Otto. Street photography terrifies me… the thought of walking up to a complete stranger in the street and asking to take their photo makes my stomach tight with fear. Even when it comes to photographic military parades and memorial services, where I often do know many of the people involved, I get really nervous before I work up the courage to approach them and ask if they would like a photo as a memento of the parade. But in that situation it isn’t quite the same as the kind of street photography you’re doing here – because I usually try to give them the photos afterwards. I presume here you don’t do that, right? Your description above was wonderful, and so uplifting… I’m pleased you have found such a lovely way of teaching, Otto.

    1. Sometimes I end up giving, or sending, people I meet on the street and photograph, some of the photos I have captured. It really depends on the situation whether it’s just a quick happening or we end up having a longer exchange.

  12. Online rarely, I never know what surprises await in cyberspace. Today presented disturbing news from ‘home’ in Mississippi about some tragic deaths… and then Life presented this refreshing post! Otto, those images made my heart smile!!!! I will read the post when at home, but even without words, it’s a powerful pictorial! Thank you for the smile you place in my heart!

  13. Amazing! I love how YOUR photos tell the story – the first view of the photographers clustered together on the side of the action, and the one near the end where the camera is forgotten and the photographer captures images of the soul, playing music with the subject – lost in the beauty of the moment and of life. Art at its very best. Thank you for opening up this way of seeing and creating to me!

  14. As you previously said somewhere in time 😉 : “Just letting go. What happens happens” about “Free Shooting” that personally remains my favourite approach to photography. Today, another great pics. And I enjoy quite a lot This: “it’s also about pushing oneself outside of the box.” 👏 👏 Merci Otto 🙂

  15. i couldn’t do that haha… i HAVE worked up my courage to ask people on the street to take their photo in the past, and it’s always been a highly unpleasant ‘no’ lol

  16. What a beautiful post, Otto. To see participants relax and live into the moment is inspiring. I will never forget an assignment in a street photography workshop where we had to ask people if we could photograph them. The first person I asked flatly replied, “No”. I found it to be very intimidating. What a positive experience in Cuba.
    I love your advice to forget about checking your screen- I agree, it breaks your concentration and involvement in the scene. Excellent information, as always. Thanks.

      1. Not at all, however, I find I’m often more comfortable shooting from the hip or other stealthy methods. Very different experience than interacting which is certainly a richer experience.

  17. I love that third shot Otto – is that Sven? Besides the fun of the tow people, the street and blue buildings are a great backdrop. Your words are very wise, stemming from years of experience. The next workshop sounds very cool!

  18. Wow! A photo workshop sounds like so much fun, Otto! I would love to cross Cuba off my bucket list soon and that workshop is an additional reason to do it sooner. And late autumn sounds perfect for that!

  19. What a truly wonderful experience for everyone involved in the workshop, Otto!
    Thank you so much for sharing the experience and the wonderful photographs here.
    Have a great weekend!

  20. I think the closest I’ve come to street photography is extended family gatherings, where I don’t know most of the people. Any ideas on how to pick a good location for trying it on the street? (Short of going to Cuba)

    1. The best and easiest would be the city you live in and then pick a street corner or a place with lots of activity. A street fair or something like that is always easier than “regular” street life.

  21. How I envy these folks! There is nothing like having an adventure in another country when one of the participants is a camera. You have given them quite a gift with their memories of the experience.

  22. I love to see great street photography, but prefer to ‘shoot’ birds…approaching them is much easier although they do not always agree to be photographed 🙂 Your workshop seems to have been a great success!

  23. Apparently Cubans are friendly and hospitable people and a blessing for street photography. As I can see you had a great time in Cuba. 🙂 I have to admit that I also make the mistake of checking it in the preview screen after having taken a photo. Because if I don’t like the photo, I can erase it immediately to save space on the memory card. But then the disadvantage is, as you say, that you may miss out on many unexpected good chances for better images!
    Best regards, Heidi

    1. I would say that if you need to save space on the memory card while shooting, you might have too small of a memory card. Anyway, I did have a great time in Cuba—as I always do. Thank you for the comment, Heidi.

      1. 32 GB, is that small? And I usually have spare memory cards with me. But I also take a lot of photos! I just can’t stop and soon I made more than a thousand pictures by the end of the trip. There is also no limit with digital photography. 🙂 And I don’t do it only to save space on my memory card, but also to save time at home if I have to select and sort my photos for storage in my files.

        1. You seem to have control. 🙂 My suggestion, in general at least, is still to save editing until one is done shooting, so as to not miss any opportunities. There is also the additional worry that deleting single images from a memory card can cause malfunction. That’s why it’s almost always recommended to format the cards when done rather than delete images. As for saving time at home, personally I don’t even bother with shots that are bad. Everything goes down on my harddrive. But that’s me. 🙂

          1. Thank you for the suggestion and you are absolutely right that we will miss opportunities if we are too busy checking! But I didn’t know that deleting a photo on the memory card could cause damage or cause a malfunction while shooting! Thanks for the warning!

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