I was recently invited to accompany an optical business to their annual fashion photo shoot. This year, that photo shoot took place in Havana, Cuba. What an experience….on so many levels. Let me begin with Cuba itself.
Towards the end of the Obama administration, the US ever so slightly loosened the rules surrounding US policy towards the island nation. Cuba was part of the Spanish Empire until the Spanish-American War in 1898 where Cuba was granted independence with US help. You’ve perhaps heard of Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill with his Rough Riders. Cuba was a playground for America with casinos and debauchery virtually run by the Mafia after World War II. In December of 1958, Fidel Castro swept out the authoritarian dictator Fulgencio Batista in December of 1958, taking control on New Year’s Day 1959. All of this took place in the shadow of the Red Scares of the 1950s. When the US spurned Castro’s request for recognition in 1960, he turned to the Soviet Union who was more than happy to have a client state just 90 miles from the US shores of Florida. Following the failed CIA Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, Cuba formally announced they would become a socialist republic further endearing them with The Soviet Union.
The United States slapped an embargo on Cuba in 1960. That administrative policy was strengthened with six statutes over the years that are still enforced today. As many people know, the US policy towards countries we don’t like is widely varied. While it was American policy to deny any trade with Cuba to unsuccessfully try and force Fidel Castro’s hand for over 50 years, we instead eagerly encouraged trade with communist China as a way of showing them the benefits of capitalism. Clearly encouraging trade has helped the people of China while blocking trade never helped a single Cuban. But the embargo hasn’t broken the spirit of the Cuban people.
Nine of us converged into Havana in late January for the 2019 photo shoot for TC Charton eyewear (a sponsor of The Optical Vision Site). We flew in from San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Las Vegas, Dallas, and Denver. Only one of us was a Cuban local. We met at a beautiful old colonial house in the Vedado section of Havana near the infamous Hotel Nacional de Cuba where American mobsters met and played. The house was turned into an Airbnb and was a wonderful place to house this group.
The first night we walked about 8 blocks to dinner where we all got to know one another better. Then it was back to the house for a good night’s sleep before the 6:00 AM call time for breakfast and makeup. Alexandra Peng, TC Charton’s founder, and CEO had arranged a wide wardrobe of bright and colorful clothing to show off her new designs for 2019. Our first shoot was in a neighboring park when a banana cart happened to pass by and was instantly corralled into being part of the shoot.
Despite the poverty that surrounds and envelopes Havana, we felt completely safe no matter where we wandered and we even had a number of people come up to us with suggestions as to where to shoot. One gentleman showed us a building where looking on through the front door one might be convinced the building would collapse the very next wind storm. Yet on every floor of the building, there were remarkable spots to shoot and the photos will speak for themselves. In between outfits and change of frames we had lunch on the 3rd floor in a restaurant name La Guarida, which turns out to be quite famous in the guidebooks and more delicious than even they noted. You would never in a million years guess that looking in through the front door of this building that it held such a remarkable restaurant or that the views from the rooftop on the 5th floor would be so breathtaking.
On Sunday night as we were all getting ready to head out for a night on the town the power cut out suddenly plunging most of Havana into darkness. Not knowing what was going on, we shared the snacks we brought as our substitute dinner while chatting with one another around the dining room table. It turns out there was a rare tornado that touched down about 5 miles from where we were staying that tragically killed four and injured over 200. With no power and no internet, our friends and families were, of course, concerned and we spent much of Monday answering texts and emails inquiring as to our safety. We were fine, only facing a raging rainstorm outside and darkness inside. We were lucky not to be in the path of the tornado. The next morning, Cubans were piling debris the following day as if it were practically nothing. I suppose their exposure each year to hurricanes make this a more common experience for many.
When one thinks of the sights of Cuba, two things come to mind, the colorful buildings and the classic cars. Dean Zulich, our master photographer was sure to incorporate both into this photo shoot. I cannot yet share the modeling photos from this shoot as they will be part of an upcoming TC Charton marketing campaign and that just wouldn’t be fair to spoil the surprise.
I have however shared some shots of the scenery and cars in and around where we were shooting just to give you a taste of what we witnessed over our stay in Havana. Just know that every frame and every outfit were made to look phenomenal with the direction of Alexandra Peng, the beauty and professionalism of our models, Ana Tanaka and Germania Martinez, the makeup artistry of Walter Fuentes, the organization of Shelly Wang and the frame fitting of Scott Balestreri, lighting assistant and Havana resident, Karla Castellano, all captured by the discerning eye and camera of Dean Zulich.
In shot after shot, this combination of talent made the new collection of TC Charton eyeglasses and sunglasses look even brighter, even better, and I have to say they looked pretty darn good right out of the cases. Yes, it always helps to have a pretty face show off most any product, but the colors and ambiance of Cuba made everything come together in breathtaking shots that you will see exhibited at Vision Expo East.
I can’t think of a better way for TC Charton to celebrate their 10th Anniversary than this dramatic photo shoot. Alexandra Peng took a chance 10 years ago launching a line focused on Asian fit eyewear and this journey was taking a chance she could capture the spirit of this island nation and her fine eyewear at the same time. When the final marketing pictures are released, you will see both gambles have paid off in a big way.
Cuba is far from paradise for the people living there. The average Cuban makes about $25 a month. It’s no wonder many a doctor and lawyer use their cars as taxicabs a few hours every week to earn hard CUC convertible currency that will actually let them buy real items. Yet wherever we went, from the old man sitting on a chair outside his apartment to the curious store owners we encountered, every person there seemed happy with a positive outlook on his or her life and lives of their children.
What will Cuba become in the next few years? Hard to tell. I’m willing to bet that slowly but surely American people and American companies will partner with Cubans to fix up the dilapidated buildings and provide more opportunities for Cubans to work at jobs that can actually pay real money, which will make for a better future for Cubans. Starting last December, Cubans now have 3G internet. There are internet hotspots in almost every park where people purchase time online in one-hour increments with a scratch card. One hour of online time for about $1.50 US. I found none of the websites I visit regularly blocked at all and was free to visit every news website I looked up. Cubans are seeing a world unknown to them just months ago and the demand for change will be inevitable.
I would definitely suggest you put Cuba on your travel bucket list before McDonalds or Starbucks does. If you don’t get a chance to see it in person, be sure to check out the great shots at TC-Charton’s booth at Vision Expo East or most likely on their website in the coming months. We were of course never framed for anything in Cuba. We felt safe and were treated with politeness and dignity wherever we went. The frames themselves and the framing of the shots for TC-Charton were more than worth 8-hour trip on a fully booked plane to get there and back.