Watching a city come to life: NAU student discusses photojournalism trip to Cuba

Mitchell Forbes

By Carly Banks
NAU Communications

By the end of the spring semester, senior Mitchell Forbes still needed a couple more credits to graduate from Northern Arizona University. But he was anxious to start a career and was determined to walk in May.

In order to obtain his photojournalism and political science degrees, Forbes embarked on an immersive summer study abroad session—a photojournalism trip to Cuba. What better way to earn a couple credits and finish out his college career than with the trip of a lifetime to a country where few Americans have traveled?

Laura L. Camden, associate professor of photojournalism in the School of Communication, organized the two-week trip.

“I visited the country for the first time back in December 2016 on a scout trip to discover and create this unique program for my students,” she said. “I fell in love with the place then and knew I needed to somehow get my students there so they could photograph and experience this amazing place as well.”

Because traveling to Cuba is difficult for Americans, Camden, Forbes and eight other students toured the Caribbean island under an educational visa. For two weeks, the group photographed life in Havana and Trinidad—engaging with local citizens, exploring remote areas and discovering the authentic Cuba that lies beneath the tourist veil.

To promote the opening of a photo exhibit displaying the Cuban images, Forbes sat down with NAU News to discuss the trip, the humidity and the colorful city of Havana.

Tell me about your experience traveling Cuba.

A man fuels his car near the Malecón in Havana, Cuba.
A man fuels his car near the Malecón in Havana, Cuba.

Cuba was a brand-new experience that, no matter how much I thought I was prepared for, always had something new to dish up. We weren’t staying with the tourists in the very polished parts of Havana, so our view of Cuba felt very authentic and raw, despite the huge uptick in tourism Cuba has seen from the U.S. as well as Europe. I’m pretty used to being able to use my cellphone for navigation, communication and entertainment, and I couldn’t do any of that in Cuba due to such a limited cell system. Because of this, each outing could only be planned so much; we didn’t have Google Maps to double check our routes. Going off the grid from a mobile-centric world was refreshing, although sometimes frustrating, because we could easily end up in corners of Havana we didn’t initially intend to explore.

What did you find most interesting about the country?

People were extremely friendly, despite the language barrier. My interactions with so many people were so warm. People were generally interested to see what I was doing with a camera and usually were happy to participate in my photographing them.

Did Cuba differ from what you expected?

I wasn’t remotely prepared for the humidity. Besides that, I was taken aback by the state of infrastructure. In political science classes, I studied communist countries and often what state that would leave public facilities in after regime changes and general age, but I did not expect to see such decaying infrastructure be so widely used by many people.

A schoolboy stands on a proch just after sunrise in Havana, Cuba.
A schoolboy stands on a porch just after sunrise in Havana, Cuba.

Tell me about your favorite photo from the trip.

It’s very hard to pick a favorite image from the trip, but I did choose one that is in the gallery. It’s an image of a schoolboy waiting on the front porch of a home; patiently watching the busy street as Havana came to life in the morning. Laura and I were walking around a neighborhood one morning and I caught that image of that boy—everything just played out in my favor! The light illuminated the boy as a strong subject, and the home he was standing in front of was painted in bright colors. The image represents my view of Havana mornings—a city bustling to life after a quiet night’s slumber.

What was your favorite memory from the trip?

Being out in Havana in the morning. I did it on several occasions, but just as the sun was coming up, Havana roared to life. Sunrise light is very nice to take photos in and the mornings offered a genuine view of what life in Havana is like. I saw parents walking children to school, laundry being hung and people riding to work. Most of us do similar activities to start the day, so it made for compelling images to show these regular start-of-the-day tasks with the backdrop of such a colorful city like Havana.

Laura Camden quote

The exhibition titled “¡Viva Cuba” will be on display in the School of Communication’s second floor gallery Oct. 30-Nov. 10. The gallery, which is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, is free and open to the public.

NAU Communications