Photographers' Blog

A child’s autistic world

Havana, Cuba

By Enrique de la Osa

When I arrived early at the Dora Alonso School, Julio came over, shook my hand and gave me the latest weather report. He did it with such precision that I didn’t know what to say. Julio is 24 years old and a die-hard meteorology aficionado. But instead of working as an expert predictor of the weather, he was making a living sweeping the school’s patios. Julio is also a patient at the school – he suffers from autism.

The Dora Alonso School specializes in treating children who suffer from autism spectrum disorders. The building housing the school was a military facility before the Revolution, and it was inaugurated as a school for children with special needs ten years ago by Cuba’s former President Fidel Castro. The school is surrounded by a lush green garden and there is no outside noise. It is extremely peaceful. More than 40 children, ranging from the age of four to six spend their days at the school with a group of therapists, doctors, physiotherapists and psychologists who not only work with the children but prepare parents and teachers as well.

The disorders can range from severe mental retardation with a profound inability to communicate, to relatively mild symptoms combined with some high levels of function such as those seen in people with Asperger’s. When I saw the students I found they looked physically normal, but seemed apathetic. They live in a world different from others. In Cuba we are used to children running around, laughing, crying, and doing everything with lots of noise and bravado; they wear their emotions on their sleeves. But these children were quiet and detached. They were completely unfazed by my presence and the camera, showing no curiosity.

The teachers, almost all women, were cheerful and deeply caring, and I was impressed by the enormous amount of affection the therapists showed to the children as they tried to make them feel at home. In class the children painted, listened to the sound of musical instruments, and with the help of a therapist they did movements in front of a mirror. In one classroom two boys were working at computers in front of a mirror. The mirror was positioned in a way so they could recognize themselves. They concentrated completely and worked on the computers with great ease.

The children do a lot of activities outside the school as well. I went with a small group to the aquarium. The National Aquarium of Havana each week hosts groups of children on guided tours where they learn to interact with dolphins and seals as part of their therapy. The therapists say this kind of therapy helps the patients to interact with others, despite their disabilities.

Is it him, or is it not?

Havana, Cuba

By Desmond Boylan

Yesterday, a strong rumor that a delayed flight from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport due to land in Havana could be carrying fugitive former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, sent dozens of reporters scrambling to the airport. Since June 23, this has happened many times already.

As I watched passengers gather in the arrival hall, the gentleman in the picture below, with the blue shirt, grabbed my attention. Could he be the fugitive?

In the midst of the Snowden story, how would clients from all over the world perceive this picture if they received it, even with a caption simply stating that they were passengers arriving in Havana from Moscow? Would it raise questions? It’s difficult to find an answer to these questions as my ethics told me that it was not right, and I decided not to move this or any of these pictures. Once I got a full view of the man’s face it was clear that he was not Snowden.

Destination Cuba: Alongside empty seat 17A

Havana, Cuba

By Maxim Shemetov

I’ve never been to Cuba before. Frankly speaking, today is my first visit. It’s a very short one of only 24 hours, of which now I have only half left to walk around Old Havana and to swim in the ocean while the global hysteria over the uncatchable Edward Snowden carries on.

For me, this story started on Sunday when I woke up and slowly went to the office. It was supposed to be a usual working weekend when almost nothing happens. Almost… Incoming calls suddenly started to light up my cell phone. The big story with Snowden as the lead actor flying somewhere via Moscow began. It is hard to describe all of the next 24 hours spent in the airport, with expensive tickets booked to get inside the transit zone at Sheremetyevo and disappointment that a lot of energy was wasted on information that turned out to be wrong.

The next morning I headed to the airport again to take the same flight as Snowden. It looked suspicious that everyone knew when and how a top secret target was going to leave Russia. The flight number, even the fugitive’s seat on the plane, was known 24 hours ahead of departure! I met around 30 reporters flying to Cuba near gate 28. All were filming a newly arrived plane while arguing with airport security.

Fidel and Miss Green, till death do they part

Sagua La Grande, Cuba

By Desmond Boylan

I know a Cuban man named Fidel who is tall, well-built and hardworking. He is known to have had several wives and many girlfriends during his life, and now has a pregnant daughter who will soon make him a grandfather, but those details of his life are diffuse. What he does admit is that the undisputed love of his life is Señorita Verde, or Miss Green.

Fidel gets on well with his neighbors, likes telling jokes, and is always in a good mood. At times he looks a bit nostalgic or sad as his house badly needs repair, and he worries the whole house will fall down on him and Miss Green during the heavy rains and strong winds of the new hurricane season.

People have offered to buy Miss Green from him so he can repair his crumbling 100-year-old wooden house, but he remains defiant. “I will never sell Miss Green. Just the idea of selling her makes me shiver,” he said. “People have no feelings.”

“I’ve never been in an elevator”

Havana, Cuba

By Desmond Boylan

Jesus Salgado, “Chinito”, was fished out of shark infested waters from a frail, sinking boat by a U.S. Coast Guard patrol near the Bahamas, back in 2003.  He had finally made his illegal exit from Cuba after a lot of planning, and even after spending a year in prison when a previous plan to escape was thwarted by the authorities. In those days, just thinking of leaving the country illegally was heavily penalized.

Salgado was not returned to the Republic of Cuba by the Americans as he would have been under today’s legislation. Under the U.S. government’s “wet foot, dry foot policy” in force today, he would have been sent home or to a third country since he was found at sea.

Salgado was returned to Cuban soil, but not in the political sense. He was taken to the U.S. Guantanamo Naval Base on the eastern tip, where he remained for 20 months working as a mechanic for wages which he saved.  He was then allowed to leave to Honduras, with the same final goal – to reach the U.S.

Inside Guantanamo Bay

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

By Bob Strong

My visit to the U.S. naval station in Guantanamo Bay Cuba began much like any other military embed. I sent an application to the Press Affairs Office (PAO) explaining who I worked for and the reason for my visit, and a couple of weeks later the trip was approved. The base is divided into two sections, the naval station which has been in existence since 1903, and the Joint Task Force (JTF GTMO) which is where the detainees are held. A special ID is needed to access the JTF section of the base and most residents of the naval station never go there. My visit request was directed at the JTF side, but I was able to work on the naval section as well.

GALLERY: INSIDE GUANTANAMO

I was met at the airport by two Sergeants, who would be my escorts for the entire trip. Although technically I could walk around the naval base unescorted, taking pictures on any military installation often attracts attention, and I ended up doing all of my work while accompanied by PAO personnel. After I arrived I was briefed on what could and could not be photographed, and reminded that all photographs and videos had to be reviewed and approved by military censors. This generally took place at the end of the day and was referred to as the OPSEC (operational security) review.

There is a long list of items not to photograph but ironically, I was permitted to take pictures of the NO PHOTOGRAPHY signs posted everywhere. When I mentioned that every inch of the base was easily identified on Google Earth, everyone in the office nodded their heads and sighed.

Cubana sweet fifteen

Havana, Cuba

By Desmond Boylan

“I started saving up for my daughters’ quinceañera party [coming-out celebration for 15-year-olds] over five years ago,” says Marlen, the mother of Carmen, who reached the age of fifteen this month. “I managed to put away money every month, by doing some odd jobs, separating some also from my husband’s retirement pension and adding to that some help from my family in the east of the country, plus selling off some worn out clothes and repairing other garments.”

Marlen managed to save just over 8,000 Cuban pesos, close to $300.

In Cuba’s economy, you cannot just go to the bank and ask for a loan; there is no culture of credit. All payments must be made in cash, so if you want to buy something you must cough up the whole cost at the moment of purchase. With the average monthly salary around $18, it’s not easy to save. But as the Cubans say, it is not easy but it is not difficult either. The amount saved up for the quinceañera celebration is huge for parents and is a really admirable amount for an average Cuban family to achieve. In this case, merit is even higher as it was done mostly by Carmen’s mother.

All Cuban girls dream of having a special quinceañera celebration. It really is a big deal for them, as big as, or even bigger than, a wedding. It is also especially expensive as the costs must be borne by just one family.

A modern witch

Havana, Cuba

By Desmond Boylan

At first sight, Mayra is a typical Cuban housewife, carrying out her daily chores as so many others. But she has another job apart from those housekeeping tasks, and when she does that she looks like anything but a housewife.

In Cuba, after the last Communist Party Congress, the government published a list of 181 private jobs and commercial activities that Cubans are now able to engage in, and pay taxes on the income generated from them.

Mayra told me, “I went through the list of 181 jobs and I couldn’t find mine. I am a freelance witch, spiritualist and fortune teller, so for the moment I cannot apply for a license to legally do my job.”

Five stars or no stars, life is a beach

By Desmond Boylan

The variety of options and price range for vacationing in Cuba, for either Cubans or foreigners, is vast. Let’s take the average Cuban family, with an income of roughly $20 (500 pesos) per month from the husband and around $10 from the wife. Summer comes and they need a break with their two children.

SLIDESHOW: BEACHSIDE CUBA

For the equivalent of $5 (120 pesos), this family can have a short, three-day break in a popular campismo, or rural cabin for four people in a natural park or near the sea, with round trip transportation included. Conditions are spartan and unsophisticated, but clean and agreeable. Obviously the Cuban state is not making a profit on this and subsidizes the cost to make it possible for average people to enjoy a holiday. Average still means the vast majority of Cubans, as in this communist economy there are still few incomes above or below the mean.

At one campismo I asked if foreigners were allowed to pay the same $5 for a stay, and the person in charge, Arelis, answered, “Of course everyone now is welcome. Before, only Cubans were allowed, but now anyone can enjoy these facilities.”

Transformer, Cuban style

By Desmond Boylan

“I am 70-years-old and I still feel strong, but legally I can’t work as a taxi driver because of my age,” Gilberto Ruiz told me the first time I met him. I had asked him about his pickup truck, a Ford, obviously pre-Revolution, with a shape I’d never seen.

He continued, “One day I suddenly had an idea. I’ll cut up my 1948 Ford Deluxe Sedan and weld it into a van and work the private transport business.”

My first thought was, “Wow, this man has imagination.” I immediately liked him and tried to get to know him better. I started to document his activity through pictures.