Cuba: Photo editing

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I’ve been starting to edit up my Cuba photos as part of a blog series I want to write on my travels there. It’s been taking so long because there’s just so many! Especially of the events around the passing of Fidel Castro. And when I start pondering slowly through them, whenever I look at a photo too long, or when I’ve been looking at a set of ten or so photos I’ve done on continuous shoot, the more I look at the changes in the faces the more I see stories I want to write up. So many stories between all these people. There are all these connections happening in every photo, so it makes it hard to let go of the photos I know that I won’t use. Especially when I feel connected to a photo subject, because I remember being there, and the energy coming from that person, or that creature, or that environment. They all feel charged and alive with electricity of a moment suspended.

Cuba
And also, I find myself rediscovering new stories through my photographs. Like some of the photos I took at the demonstrations, I would take 20 pictures at a time, trying to capture the exact emotion in their face as they were shouting the words of a song. And as I’m scrolling through these pictures, having found the right one and seeing what else there was left, I’ll see someone looking at them with a funny expression, or I can see the tightening of their knuckles on something they’re holding, or sometimes even the subject of the photo will look at me. I find that a lot, where right in the middle of a shoot, someone is looking straight at me and there’s a sudden smile, something I didn’t see before. It takes me off guard sometimes, and makes me smile back, and I wish I could go back and speak to that person again. But there it is! I like it as well when I’ve focused on a subject, but then I go back a few photos and I see them doing something entirely different, something that completely goes against what I thought I was taking a photo of them for. Like they’ll be fierce and angry in one photo, but in the early photo, they’ll be cracking up about a joke I didn’t hear.
Anyway, Cuba was different for me. I took a lot of photos of people, which I haven’t done before. Not at these close quarters anyway. I had a small lens most of my time there, especially on the days  I didn’t have a chance to ask my photographer friend who was with me whether I could switch to anything else, and I think I didn’t really need to, because it made me move around a lot, and it made me frame in a different way, getting closer than sometimes I felt comfortable with. So it pushed me really, which I think helped me to think about things a little more dynamically.

Cuba
Of course I would have wanted to take more nature photos but there was so much happening in Havana, which stopped anything else from happening. However I did go to the two nature hotspots near Havana which I was very desperate to go to – the very famous Vinales, and the less famous eco-tourism village called Las Terrazas. I took lots of photos of the first one, when I was still travelling with Emmanuel but the second one, embarrassingly… I lost all my photos. I put them on an SD card or a memory stick, and managed to leave them somewhere in Cuba. I am so glad that it was those I lost, rather than my photos of Havana and Vinales, as those were the ones I really focused on and spent a lot of time with, but it’s still a shame. But, good news – when I traveled to Las Terrazas, I went with a couple from Switzerland who were also taking a lot of photos on their camera as well as on their GoPro. So I should be able to put some of those pictures up too.

 

I normally find I get no life from the city, that I’m lost in grey buildings and busy lives, aching to go out to the country. So Havana for me was an unexpected love story, and exactly why I spent so long there. Nonetheless once I got out of the city, and the car engine stopped and all I could hear was chattering insects and the disruptions of countryside noise rather than constant city noise, and at night there was just the pealing mass of the stars, I felt at peace again.

Cuba

 

A tropical air

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A tropical air

The light on the river as I turn on the path towards the sun was sudden and buoyant, so unexpected, so I was really glad I brought my camera. Today, there’s an unexpected ‘tropical air’ in England – so just for a little bit, the winter has relented and the sky is bringing us visions of what has been and what can be. If winter every day was as brilliant blue as this, I couldn’t ever find myself having a moment of complaining about the winter! Actually, today is the first day I haven’t brought my coat out. On my walk yesterday, I was walking for a long time, and felt very hot – not just in the wintry way of being suffocated in layers, but actual sunlight warming my body, and I felt like a lizard on the rock of the surface of the world. I’ve missed this.

 

Also, there’s never a problem that a walk with a friend can’t unlock. At first I start walking, and I feel like a rusty clockwork doll, trying to remember how to function correctly. Then slowly the walk is unwinding and so too do the thoughts and feelings. A rhythm begins, and there’s where for me the song writing starts to happen, or the words flow through my mind. And with friends, it’s where everything starts to flow more freely.

 

I couldn’t help but find the water entrancing today; it was clear and deep, and started clear and still, so I started to take photos of the perfect alignment. Then the ducks and swans passing by would trace lazy zigzags through the river, that built and built into a crescendo until it all was alive with a smooth distortion that beats across the whole water. Imperfection is really better than perfection.

A tropical air

 

A tropical air

Winter walk

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The weather was calm when we woke up, so we packed up some cold lunches and filled up a couple of flasks of tea and headed out on the road. It was a nice, easy day as we drove up to the Devon moors, not late enough that we got caught in any traffic, not early enough that the roads were covered in ice and perhaps a little dangerous. We turned off into country lanes, the kind that go along and feel like I need some loud music and good company, and then suddenly there is a corner so steeply rising and so bending backwards that I have to shift into first gear and navigate around a triangle of road… In the moors, maybe it’s only when the road bends back on itself 180 degrees that I think they need a warning sign. At one point I was feeling so frazzled from some of the smaller roads directly winding around the edge of the cliff, that I stopped in a small lay-by and we had our lunch there, then I drove to the top of the road and turned left and the most beautiful vista opened up with one car parked up overlooking a clear view as far as the curvature of the world could go, all sea and wild cliffs, and I said ‘oh, that would have been a nice place to have lunch…’ and we just laughed so much. Always the way!

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Even though it was a long trail, we quite forgot about our tea in the bottom of our bags. As we were already so warmed with high spirits and the fast pace. The sea and the sky met each other, and were so fresh, quite unstormy really despite it still being winter. There was no wind, no cold or sea spray, just a small glow inside ourselves, and we were all alone on the track. Well, almost alone! There were wild goats everywhere, all up and down the cliff, and little baby ones, butting into each other and screeching in joy. I had no real thoughts today, nothing that really came to mind like it does sometimes when I’m walking or when I’m someplace new. Just the happiness of a new place to explore, a quiet space to piece together and let thoughts and feelings rest when they’re been exercised for a long time. Sometimes, all I need.

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Anyway, I have a new friend with me today. My sister surprised me with this bag for my birthday. I’ve been thinking about it for so long, a pattern from a company in the Lake District but really didn’t expect anyone to not only buy his pattern and wool, but to make him too… a double, triple birthday present. I was so delighted. He is lined beautifully, and all the handles are felted to make them strong and durable. So of course he came straight on our journey with us, holding my camera when I wasn’t using it.

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Story telling

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Fidel Castro

A lot of people have asked me about my travels to Cuba, most of all about the time at the end of November, when Fidel Castro died, shortly after I arrived in the country. I’ve had a lot of different questions about this, what happened, what the energy was like, so I feel like I almost disappoint people when I tell them, ‘Really, nothing that much happened’.

The first I found out about it was when I woke up in the morning, maybe at 6 AM or 7 AM. It was still dark – rather, there were no windows in the very tiny hostel room, where I was spending my first two days in Cuba, on the top cramp bunk above six beds crowded around a doorway. There were several messages on my phone and it took a moment for it to sink in.

When I slipped out of my bed with a daypack and a bread roll for the day, it was quiet throughout the rest of the hostel. I went next door to have breakfast with the hostel’s neighbours, and if I hadn’t waited for the owner to come back (he had been looking for newspapers to give to people staying there, but there were, unusually for Cuba, none available until later in the day, when they would make an official statement), I wouldn’t have known anything for quite some time. Because when I walked through the streets, it was quiet yes, there was no music while people tried to figure out if they were allowed to play music or not (they weren’t), there was an increased police presence, but there was no outpouring of grief, no joyous celebrations, just nothing like what I heard was happening elsewhere in the world.

Fidel Castro

So really, in a way there was no story to tell. Not in the way that I think I expect when I read a newspaper article or watch a news broadcast. The media was there to find stories and came in great forces to Cuba over the next few days. I don’t know if they were disappointed by the quietness or if they found a story they were looking for. Even so, I was frustrated by how they were working. We saw one woman crying – she was the only one we saw crying, out of hundreds of thousands, who was actually expressing an outburst of emotion like this. There were so many cameras swarming around her to get the iconic image of the country suffering. Later, she was smiling and waving her Cuban flag. It made me think a lot about what we expect to hear and what sort of stories we want to hear. Of course, it’s natural – we expect reaction, we seek emotion, and we want something to connect to.

But what there was to connect to in Cuba was something that, really, I would need days of filming and photographing to capture, because it was softer and more subtle. The stories there were to find were there, waiting, but they were found by listening to the quietness, the small bubbles forming underneath the surface. It was a shop owner telling us that she still wouldn’t be able to see her family living in Florida, so nothing had changed. It was the newspaper sellers and the hotels finding their own microeconomies by selling the newspapers from that day for a hugely inflated price, or opening their rooftops when no other museums or tourism areas were allowed to open. It was the tired faces standing watching the funeral procession for hours on end, and the suddenly louder cheers, everyone standing up and coming to attention, when Raul Castro came onto the stage.

It took me a while to decipher these stories, and what I realised at the end was, what we consider to be Castro and communism, a cult image we’ve built up, isn’t (for right or wrong) what it is on the ground level. For Cubans, it’s just life.  So the news about Fidel Castro isn’t the end of an era, not for many people living in Cuba anyway; it’s just another person, who was part of that revolutionary group, who has caused them many good things and many bad things, and who now has passed on, with his brother having been in power for many years anyway. Nothing really changes, just the figure head.

 

Cuba

An afternoon on the heath

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February is fully here now, with all of the leftovers of autumn and winter colours in its trail. It’s another new month of the new year, that is coming steadily into just being ‘the year’. The last month feels like it’s gone very quickly, so when I feel like this, I know I want to slow down a bit. The weekends I take a lot of refuge in, because it is so good to have some time just for myself and on creating new things, and letting the day pass by at a slow speed around me.

Partly this weekend I worked on a lot of writing projects and some photographs, all day yesterday. I woke up feeling so tired after the busy week. Something I’ve been meaning to do for a while is go to the heath near where I live, so we went together today.

Walk along the heath

Walk along the heath

As we went, very quickly on the London train, from the city into the countryside, all of the week’s concerns seem to fall away. Within 3 minutes, I was walking through a cemetery and among misty trees into the overgrown shrubland. It’s hard to walk around here especially in the winter, and this week there has been more rain than other weeks. It’s been a dry Winter but the heath was very boggy, stubbornly holding water. So we walked slowly but with no one else around. It felt like Autumn was still very much alive there, a long and strange cold season.

Sometimes the surroundings seemed drab, whited out, nothing special to them apart from a mystical presence to them. And then rounding a cluster of trees or coming out into a wide open space, suddenly everything in front of me would be alive with colour, like it would be hiding away for a long time where no one could find it. Often the colours would be just under my feet or in the most unlikely places, like a certain angle of the river but only from one spot. So it took some searching to find the colour, but that made it worthwhile in its own way. I was quiet today, not just in talk but also in my mind, and I felt like I was listening to the little moments, drawing my energy from the ground. Although the winter takes away some energy, I love the special moments it offers.

Walk along the heath

Walk along the heath

Walk along the heath

Walk along the heath

Walk along the heath

No limits on us

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Last week I spent a wonderful time at a Youth Ambassador launch for ONE UK, an organisation campaigning to end extreme poverty. It was a privilege to be invited back as a Youth Ambassador. Not only this, but I got to meet some amazing young people determined to make change – and catch up with some old friends!

ONE Youth Ambassadors

I think there is nothing better than being surrounded with positive people looking towards the future. There’s an enthusiasm that just can’t be captured in any other way. It’s really unique representing this organisation as well, because they aren’t looking for donations from the public – they want to represent people’s voices, and there’s so many ways that anyone can do that.

When we went into Parliament, we had a chance to talk to Dr Rosena Allin-Khan MP of Tooting. We were all entranced by her stories from working in the field of international development – she grew up having quite a hard life, and when she found out others had a harder life than her outside of the UK, she was determined to work to reduce this. And so far it sounds like she’s done a lot towards this, working directly in the field in a number of countries. One thing she said: “Never accept the limitations that others put on you”. Once she accepted this, she told us, nothing could stop her from working to achieve what she wanted.

Maybe a year or two ago, hearing that being said would have been a, ‘Oh that’s a lovely inspirational quote to scroll past, a nice Tumblr quote’. But hearing it today.. I don’t know, it resonated in that room. I think it was a good time in my life to hear it. A lot of people there felt the same way, and we discussed it afterwards for sometime, what that meant for us in our lives right now. We all really appreciated the chance to talk to someone in government who supported the work we were doing.

It’s great to see organisations giving a space for people to have a voice. Once people have a platform for change – particularly young people, who are finding their way and trying to discover how to make a difference in their day-to-day lives – a positive message for good can be greatly amplified. And so wonderful talking to the young people there on that day! There are some young people who have been representing ONE for many years, and some who have just joined this year and were excited by the launch party. I wish I could have got pictures with some of them! The organisation really looked after us and gave us lunch, dinner and accommodation, and helped a lot of the ambassadors on launching press releases. I know a lot of people there will be inspirational change makers for the future. Also, I got asked a lot of questions by people there about the travels I’ve done and the internships I’ve gone into – so that’s something I’ll write about later – it’s good to know people want to know these things so they can get into these opportunities.

I didn’t have time to take pictures so I’ve used one from ONE UK, and when I go back to the office for International Women’s Day on 1st March I’ll be able to take more photos, I hope. Thanks to the office for a great time – see you all again soon!

New months

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I have been really busy with some deadlines in January so February is a really good chance to take stock of where I am. January is also hard because I let go of some of my good habits after the small number of restful and peaceful festive days after Christmas and before New Year. But I had such a lovely time away from it all that I don’t regret any of it! Just nice days spent with family and friends, unwinding and letting my mind and soul reflect back on the past year.

So to get back into January, alongside the emerging work deadlines, I decided to do ’10 minutes’ a day of all the little things I wanted to do. Whether that was playing new songs on the guitar or the piano, learning languages, or reading – it would be 10 minutes of each. Of course, 10 minutes always turns into 15, 20 minutes, maybe an hour – I can’t read a book and put a timer on! But the important thing, for me, was just to do a bit of each, just to ease myself back into it. After a few days, I was already fired back and back in the mindset. I really liked taking a moment a day on my favourite things and remember what was important long term. And that includes writing.

 

Writing

It’s been a really cold month in England, after returning from warmer places back to my home. Even so, when my mind has been getting too busy and I’m not sure what to do first, I’ve been wrapping up warm, with boots and scarves and coats – so many layers – to go outside and think for a bit. I like the time away from the screen and out of the house, not because it helps me think about current issues or problems to solve, but because I start thinking about something entirely different – normally a song lyric comes into my head, or an idea for a side plot in a story. And when I get back inside and brew a cup of mint tea and sit down in front of the screen, nothing that urgent has happened in my absence.

 

So for me, February will be more of this – regathering strength, considering where my resources are at, and forging a path consciously. Also more walks, which I’m looking forward to. More adventures. That’s where being busy has its merits – it drives us so far past the point of comfort that I think, surely there’s a way to do this better!

 

I know that reviewing is a bit hard because it means, instead of coming up with new ideas and surging forward with no consideration for past projects, it makes me look at everything with fresh eyes. Old work projects, old documents I’m relying on, old songs that I haven’t touched for a few months, chapters in my books that I find hard to go back and edit. Just thinking about it, I can feel a twinge, a sort of flinch that makes me want to avert my eyes. This flinch, it’s getting more identifiable. Instead of parting ways from my path the moment an obstacle come up, it’s letting me think about it, to look it face on. I’m learning to identify this flinch and unrobe it as it is, something in disguise that’s trying to melt into the background, something that I need to address or else I’ll never tackle it. So it’s been a good month of reflecting, time to take this quiet energy forward now and transform it.

 

Starting something new

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For me, the moment after the start of a new project is the most difficult. Whether it’s a song that I find rudely interrupts my thoughts and takes over my head, an idea for a novel that I’m scribbling down on the back of a napkin, or a project for work that takes over my imagination in the middle of a meeting, first of all there is an explosion of activity where I can almost feel the mind tangling together into new patterns and ideas. The creative burst of being in the zone, and letting the idea take us on its flow. And then when I flinch, or bite my lip, or step away for a day too long, the flow is fully interrupted, and that’s when it’s hard to lose myself in the dizzying patterns again and remember where I started and what I wanted. If a project was like a mountain, this would be the time when I’d be hurtling down it on my bike, the wind in my hair.
But I like this time a lot too, because I know that if I keep teasing it out, and inch slowly down the path, then I’ll come to those moments of sweeping inspiration again. Maybe sometimes it’ll be a hard slog, a climb uphill where it will take all my strength, and sometimes I’ll have to even get off and push it up, with the occasional break for rest. No journey is ever the same. I thought that successfully being creative was the burst of inspiration that carries you through to the end, but I’m starting to learn, slowly, that if I feel like an idea is solely a stream of consciousness inspiration, with no substance, then actually, those are not my better ideas. Then I need to step back for a bit, drink some tea, maybe even take a prolonged break along the trail to work on a new path, and then come back to it later, refreshed and ready.

 

Anyway, this January I decided it was time to buy a new camera. I have been considering for a while to do this but always the idea of putting a financial decision into an idea has put me off. Actually in reality, I don’t think my financial decisions have been really wasted, because I’ve always learned something from it, and sometimes the lesson is sharp and teaches us a lot, and sometimes of course, it is far more rewarding. This, I think, is one of the more rewarding decisions!
The decision to make this little change is when I was traveling in Cuba in December. I met so many amazing people and learned so many stories, and I was fortunate on my first day, as I walked along the Malecon alone looking out at the beautiful sea, to stumble into a group who I spent a lot of time with over the next several days. One of them was a photographer from New York (who was also fluent in Spanish, making my work traveling around the country much easier). I had brought my own old DSLR with me, which he showed me how to use properly for a day, then kindly he lent me his own photography equipment, and even more kindly his time and patience in helping me and teaching me how to use it and to develop an eye for photography. The chance encounter and the kindness he showed me left me determined, not just in the days after I returned, but for weeks afterwards, to return to something that made me see the world in a new light. And so here I am!

 

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Here’s one of my first photos I took in Cuba. These guys were so fun to meet, and very willing to be the subject of our photography lesson!

 
I have put a lot of my energy into other projects over the past year which has left me a little bit tired over this winter and ready to recoup some of my energy. So it has felt refreshing to take the time out and learn something completely different, with no strings attached. Another project this past month was that I developed another thing that was very unrelated from my normal work and writing and composing. I went back over some of my old videos from travels on the road, and found all my videos that I made in Australia. I haven’t looked at them for a few years, but I sat down after the festive season, when I had one or two days to myself, and found myself intricately drawn up into editing a long video about my travels in Australia, learning how to piece together the separate videos, speed up moments and slow down to the music, and be selective about the parts I cut out.

 

Without meaning to, I was learning a skill I had never even tried before. And really, it wasn’t so hard! It was such a great feeling, after a day and a night spent on the computer, to come away with not one, but seven new videos about my travels. It was a wonderful reminder that so many of my barriers are mental, and what one person considers an insummontable mountain is for others an intriguing and exciting trail. When I write or draw or compose music or otherwise do something that I feel has a great ramification – a project that I know will not be completed for days or weeks or months or even years down the line – I feel this is a reminder to treat it, not with fear and dread, but with excitement and curiosity. That way, I can even get past the teeth-gritting and difficult moments, for the view at the end.

 
So now, I like taking pictures and trying something new, and seeing where this adventure takes me!

 

First photo

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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At the entrance to Dimmuborgir National Park, on the evening of the summer solstice, a sign warned us to look out for elves.

This wasn’t really a big surprise to us. On all of the Icelandic signs we’d read so far on our adventure, legends and folk tales had been written as undisputed fact. “A chest of gold lies behind this waterfall,” claimed implausible signs at Skógafoss, our previous stop, “and its broken handle lies in the town’s museum.”

You’re never sure what’s true and what isn’t in Iceland.

Nonetheless, even though the sky was high in the sky, it was gone eleven at night; we were satisfied that any ‘elves’ would have gone to bed by now.

And so we continued into the park, on a looping track through a craggy panorama. The only sound was our relaxed footsteps on golden rock, save for an occasional bird clattering awake in confusion at the midnight sun. Basaltic fingers of ancient lava clung to the volcanic ground, alien figures among plush sprouts of grass. We rounded the corner.

On the path stood a spindly man, wearing a green jumper and brown breaches.

He waved wordlessly, tipped his emerald hat to us, and disappeared off the track.

I stood, rooted.

“It’s an elf!” I hissed, incredulous. Either that, or a complete madman. Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to explore unknown trails late at ‘night’, even if it was as bright as day.

Creeping on, and struck between giddy, childlike excitement and embarrassed confusion, we promptly stumbled across a second elf, who smiled warmly and beckoned. “Let me take you to our home.”

Curiosity overcoming shyness, what choice did we have but to follow?

Off the path we tiptoed, through untamed turf and imposing lava columns, and down a rugged slope. And sure enough, in a sliver of a gap under crusted tree roots, there was his home.

Seven beds for seven mystical elves, a simple kitchen, dried meat hanging from a low ceiling. Small candles lit the darkest corners. The elf pointed at various rustic tools and explained their use for cutting wood, for cooking. A third elf waved from the corner.

It took me a while to find out how lucky we’d been. One night every summer, these elves, known as the ‘Yulelads’, come to greet park visitors. The attraction is never advertised; locals just turn up with their children to see if they can find them.

Quite by accident, I had wandered like a dreamer into a little corner of legend brought alive.

I decided I would never doubt the Icelandic again.

 

(Thanks for the commendation, World Nomads)

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Latest from the Blog

Cuba: Photo editing
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I’ve been starting to edit up my Cuba photos as part of a blog series I want to write on my travels there. It’s been taking so long because there’s just so many! Especially of the events around the passing of Fidel Castro. And when I start pondering slowly through … Read More

A tropical air
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The light on the river as I turn on the path towards the sun was sudden and buoyant, so unexpected, so I was really glad I brought my camera. Today, there’s an unexpected ‘tropical air’ in England – so just for a little bit, the winter has relented and the … Read More