Photographer Shane Banks spent five weeks taking daily walks through the streets of Havana. His goal was to capture the soul of Cuba with his pictures. Not that simple for a tall foreigner like Shane.

Shane Banks, why did you choose Cuba, of all places, for your photography project?

"I travelled to Cuba twice for Edelweiss. On my second trip, I stayed longer so as to realise my own projects. On my first trip, I was only there for a week and loved it. I knew that I wanted to know more about the country, and when the chance presented itself in the shape of a second Edelweiss assignment, I took it. I had met someone whom I could stay with. That is how I got to spend five weeks in Havana living with a local family – grandmother and schoolchildren included. It was a fabulous experience."

What fascinates you about Cuba?

"I love the colours, the light, the noise, and the fact that the Cubans love everything associated with pictures. Cuba is home to every skin colour and every conceivable sound. The country was isolated for so long due to its socialist system. Yet, ironically, I felt such a strong sense of freedom there, but also a real sense of belonging. Every street has a community and people are supportive of one another. If someone accidentally drops a bag or stumbles in a street in Zurich, help can be slow in coming. In Cuba, by contrast, help is immediately available, and unconditionally so."

Photos: Edelweiss/Shane Banks

How did you spend your five-week sojourn in Cuba?

"I didn’t plan anything in advance, nor did I know what I would be photographing. For the first time in my career, I just wanted to walk the streets and take pictures of whatever caught my eye. Quite touristy in a way. But I wanted to go deeper, I wanted to bring out the personalities of the people depicted in my photographs."

What did you see while sauntering the streets of Havana?

"An unbelievable amount. An elderly lady clad in her nightdress standing in the street and eating a brioche in the small hours of the morning. A young man carrying huge pallets of eggs. There is so much going on, you cannot help but take pictures."

So was it easy to take great pictures of people?

"No, not at all. As a tall foreigner I get noticed in Cuba. And as soon as the people notice my camera, they are no longer the same. Their expressions change. The Cubans are very open and friendly, but they value their privacy and don’t like the feeling of it being invaded."

How did they react to you and your camera?

"Well, when I noticed that someone seemed anxious I asked of course before taking a picture. But as soon as you need to do that, the photograph is basically lost. In terms of the quality of a photograph, it is much better to ask after taking the picture as to whether it was OK to do so. As said, the Cuban people are generally very open and sociable, and they often approached me."

Tell me about one of these encounters.

"A tall, dark-skinned man came and sat next to me. He told me he was an English teacher and then explained that Havana’s streets have been torn up because new gas and water pipes are being laid. He invited me for a drink in his favourite bar, although it was obvious that he did not have much money. He was simply happy to have the chance to speak English. Of course I paid for our drinks."

Do you have a favourite motif that you photographed?

"I have several. But I spontaneously recall the elderly gentleman with a cap on his head and a full, white beard. He has an amazing charisma and presence. Or the taxi driver whom I photographed during a taxi ride. Incidentally, there is currently quite a bit of money to be made as a taxi driver in Havana. Children are another favourite motif of mine. The children in Havana’s streets don’t have much, yet they emanate so much joie de vivre. When watching them, you can’t help but join in their laughter."

Do you have a favourite place in Havana?

"I lived in the city district of Vedado, which is the newer part of Havana with many Art Deco style buildings. I think the district is really cool because it features Cuba’s colourful diversity. There are ice cream parlours, discotheques, gay bars, and the university and the famous ‘Hotel Nacional de Cuba’ and ‘Habana Libre’ hotels are also there."

You lived with a Cuban family. Did you get to experience their everyday life?

"The main source of income of the family I stayed with is from letting three rooms of their house to tourists. The lady of the house is a qualified pharmacist – almost everyone in Havana has been to university – and works in a pharmacy. The two boys go to school, learn English and take dance classes. I accompanied them to school a few times and took some pictures there, too. That was really interesting. The children have to salute and recite texts about their nation. And then there was the grandmother. She really liked me, made me breakfast and gave me biscuits."

What’s a typical day in a typical middle-class family in Havana like?

"I don’t know because I don’t really have anything to compare it with. At this point in time, it is perhaps quite typical that everyone is trying to make money from tourists in one way or another. For instance, by letting rooms or opening a private restaurant. Or converting a private car into a taxi, which is what Eduardo, the father of my guest family, does too."

Cuba is at a point of new beginnings and becoming increasingly more open. Can that be felt in the country itself?

"Absolutely. There is an air of joyful expectation and the mood is good. Another typical fact: parents want to make sure their children get the best possible education. Now more than ever, because they genuinely see a fulfilled future for them."

An incredibly exciting time for Cuba?

"Indeed! But I hope the country won’t change too quickly and that it manages to preserve its independence and uniqueness. Anything else would be a real shame."

(Text: Sandra Casalini)