La Familia Cubana: The charming and vibrant energy of Cuba

Thai photographer Po Bunyapamai captures Cuba beyond the veneer of old cars and crumbling buildings.

Po Bunyapamai is your prototypical high school classmate that has been tinkering around with cameras—long before it became a hallmark of cool. Since graduating from Pratt Institute in product design in 2012, the shutterbug still remains the first name of recall among friends and acquaintances when it relates to all things photography—thus eventually pushing him to take up freelance photography in 2014. 

Although he is largely a commercial food photographer by day, Po dabbles in travel and portrait photography by passion. Currently based in Zurich, Po’s photography assignments have taken him all around the world, covering fine-dining menus, cutting-edge installations to editorial shoots. When he was commissioned to take soccer pictures for Howler Magazine in 2016, the adventurous photographer jumped at the opportunity. “I’ve always been very interested in Cuba, since learning about its trade embargo, Communism and Fidel Castro in history class,” says Po. “The thing is, it’s so hard to find information about Cuba on the Internet as opposed to other countries, so I was curious to find out more about its culture.” 

Going beyond shooting the veneer of old cars and crumbling buildings, Po found himself invited into the homes of locals and discovers that the true charm of Cuba is in its people. La Familia Cubana—which showcases 24 images out of the thousands he took from his trip—is his first-ever exhibition at Monochrome. Kooper talks to him about navigating Cuba and the power of portraits. 

Kooper: Was Cuba like what you expected it to be?
Po: “Not at all. In my mind, I had this image of a tropical paradise with free healthcare & education, isolated from the world, and unspoiled by globalization. The reality is a bit more complex than that. While Cuba is isolated from and sanctioned economically by the US, the country is very international with cultural exchanges and trade with many countries in the world. It is a very cosmopolitan place. There are music festivals, art festivals, and all sorts of international events that are not different from what we see in Bangkok.”

What are some interesting cultural quirks you learned about their society? 
“My favorite has to be the communal nature of Internet usage. First you will have to buy Internet cards that cost 1USD for one hour of usage, then you’ll have to find a Wifi hotspot. They are usually in public parks and plazas, and very easy to spot because you will see a group of people sitting around all staring into their phones. It’s great because when you’re on a trip with friends, everyone is actually hanging out with each other instead of burying their faces in social media all the time. Also, everything is slow. So slow it’ll make Thailand look efficient. It’s Communism after all, so why the rush. All Cubans get paid the same at the end of the day. Make some friends while you wait and enjoy the real ‘slow life’”.

How did you get strangers to open their houses to you?
“I think when people are materialistically poor, they have less things to be stolen. From what I understand, it is also their culture to have an open door where neighbors can come in and borrow things. It is as if their home is an extension of the street, and they are sharing everything. For me, as a photographer, it is very nice that locals would let me come into their homes and photograph the beautiful interiors.”

What has been your experience of language barriers while shooting and how did you overcome that?
“In the paper published in 1967 by Professor Mehrabian, he attributes communication to 55% body language, 38% to tone of voice, and only 7% through actual words. With that in mind, it didn’t matter that I was not speaking the same language as the locals, I was able to get my message across by saying what I want in my language, meanwhile miming as much as I can, and of course with a good attitude and a smile. It definitely helps to know some basic words, and dropping them strategically into my sentences will get the meaning across.

For example, to photograph the set of four photos with the family in colorful interiors, the conversation was quite complex because we had to make an appointment to come back again to the same spot the next day at 3pm. Indicating the location was easy by pointing at the floor, then saying mañana. But communicating time was difficult because I didn’t know any Spanish numbers. I had to resort to drawing a clock on a piece of paper. That got the message across.”

What about Cuba left the biggest impression on you?
“Cuba showed me another alternate society, where happiness is possible without an abundance of material. Amid a crumbling cityscape, genuine smiles are everywhere. They fascinate me because they embody a sense of playfulness and optimism in the face of hardship. Cubans work, play, and share on the streets. After all, all we really need are each other.”

There are quite a few portraits you’ve included in this exhibition. Why so? 
“I like photographing people. To me, portraiture is fascinating because it captures the mood between the subject and the photographer. I have been to photo shoots where the same model is photographed by four different photographers in the same location, but the facial expressions and emotion between each photographer’s set were different. A portrait shows how I make the subject feel in that instant, and that emotion lives on forever in that photograph.”

What are some tips you can share for going on trips like these to shoot travel photography? 
“My tip for travel is to keep an open schedule. The worst kind of itinerary is when every activity is planned down to the last minute. That’s so boring. Travel is about discovery, and serendipity is your best friend. However, don’t get me wrong, you should always do your research, then use that information to form a loose framework. But on the way to your destination, let your curiosity lead you. It is like shopping where the agenda is to look at everything that interests you. You may find an interesting cafe, stop into it. You may see some kids playing football by the river, watch them. Go out and meet locals, let them take you places. It is the most amazing way to travel.”

What is some advice you have for Thais or first-timers visiting Cuba?
“Cuba is a very safe country. But you should watch out for scams. Similar to Thailand: you should negotiate a price before getting into a taxi, or if someone ‘recommends’ a restaurant and it’s empty and the price is high, chances are, you’re being scammed.

For first timers, be aware that not all restaurants will taste good. It’s a Communist country so they get paid the same whether they make delicious food or not. The food aspect is where doing a bit of research will pay dividends.

Other than that, walk the streets, go down the alleys. Alleys are the most interesting part of Havana. If you’re short on time, skip the countryside. It is the Cuban culture in cities that is really special.”

Cameras you’ve used for these photos?
“For travel, I usually take two different types of cameras that complement each other well. Most of the photos in this exhibition are shot with an Olympus E-M1, it’s fast, light, and has a great stabilization system — perfect for all round shooting. A couple portraits were shot with a Leica M-P rangefinder, and a good amount were also shot with my iPhone 6 when the moment will pass by too quickly to bring up a camera.”

What should visitors not miss if they visit Cuba? 
“My favorite spot in Havana is the Malecón. It is a seawall/highway built in the early 1900’s on the northern side of Havana. Every evening, the entire 8km stretch of the Malecón is filled with locals. It’s so relaxing during sunset when the tropical sun dips below the horizon, the cool ocean breeze engulfs you, while wave after wave crashes against the seawall you’re sitting on. You are one with nature, and in that moment, you don’t feel like you’re in a big city anymore. It is a very Cuban kind of peacefulness.”

La Familia Cubana is on display at Monochrome, Decho Road until February 29, 2020. For more information about the photographer, visit www.po-photos.com

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