Two kids stand outside a crumbling doorway flanked by graffiti. A man walks down the street with the Cuban flag resting on one shoulder. Another pair of kids play basketball with a faded green ball on a rustic, pastel-colored court.
These are among the shots captured by Northeastern students who studied photography and storytelling during a three-week-long study abroad program in Havana. Northeastern professor Luis Brens, who led the program, says it was designed to immerse the students in Cuban culture while teaching them the nuances of street photography.
“Taking them to a completely different culture where we are literally disconnected from how we lived here every day,” says Brens, who has been leading the program since 2013. “To me, that’s our biggest goal. Photography jumps in really good in that because they can make pictures based on that. They can connect and hopefully make a journey out of that.”
After being sent out on a street photography assignment in Havana, Sam Barry wandered the Cuban capital, looking for the shot. After hours of shooting without success, she was about to head back to her hotel when something black fluttered out of the corner of her eye. Barry turned around to see two Cuban kids running around, wrapped in tape from old cassettes. She reached for her camera.
“I immediately stopped and realized I walked into a photographer’s dream of finding a moment like this,” says Barry, a third-year student who is studying journalism at Northeastern. “I probably sat there for half an hour, watching these kids pretend to be all sorts of things with this film and it was really a moment for me.”
In order for students to immerse themselves, Brens says they had to shoot photos outside the comfortable tourist-friendly areas.
“Professor Brens was really big on us going out into the streets of Havana, into old and central Havana, pushing away from the touristy areas and trying to get real connections with the people who lived there and worked there,” Barry says. “That was when we produced our best work.”
Earlier this month, the United States Treasury Department announced new restrictions on American travel to Cuba. Educational group trips were included in the travel restrictions, but Brens says that the photography program in Cuba will continue.
“As of today, I can confirm that we still have a green light for next year,” Brens says. “It is my understanding that institutional educational activity hasn’t changed, but we are preparing for plan A and plan B in case things change.”
The students heard of the travel restrictions while they were still on the island. They came home wondering if they were the final group of Northeastern students to study abroad in Cuba. Barry says she was relieved to hear the program will continue.
“I think it’s great that they can still do this,” Barry says. “The way Luis sets up this [program], if you really put your heart and soul into the work that we do, you learn to get photography. Once you break down the walls you didn’t know you built up, like the way Luis pushed us outside of our comfort zones, it let us experience the country in a completely different way.”
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