The light in the empty movie theater is muffled and I immediately start thinking about which camera to use, which ISO I can use, what my fastest lens is. The dancers we come to photograph transform into costumes somewhere at the back of the building which serves as their rehearsal room.
The drummers who will accompany the dance chatter and play an occasional riff on their congas or batá drums, smiling at the beats. Raices Profundas (Deep Roots) is a Havana-based dance company committed to preserving the African origins of Cuban dance and music, particularly the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria. I don’t know what to expect from the performance.
I arrived in Havana from the United States the day before to join a group of photographers who would spend the week photographing Cuban dance companies. I don’t particularly like the workshop environment, generally preferring to work alone. But traveling with an organized group was the only way to visit Cuba in 2020, and it also promised access to several dance companies in the city. I am completely new to Cuba, I don’t speak a word of Spanish and I only have my enthusiasm for dance photography to transport me.
The drums begin; complex rhythms that hold the spirit of the Caribbean with something deeper, more distant, the African influence. Male members of society dressed in fierce vivid colors with swords and sticks in hand, pantomime battle. Women dance in long skirts and deep, vibrant colors surrounding unbridled feminine energy. I lower the ISO and change my shutter speed to a fifteenth of a second. The resulting images are blurry and impressionistic. The individual dancers relapse into color, gesture and wit – capturing these talented performers better, I think, than a simple portrait.
And then the yellow dress. Carried by a beautiful black Cuban dancer, the yellow material collects a rich light against the blue / gray walls of the old theater. She turns, gathers her full skirt and releases it as she turns again. The fabric forms arcs and swirls, and her dark face floats above the strip of color. I release the shutter again and again. The woman in yellow smiles with palpable joy in her movements and the rhythm of the drums. And just once, as I look at the camera and catch her gaze, she smiles at me.
Back at the hotel, I download the images. I look again and again at the photographs of the dancer in the yellow dress. I realize that I don’t even know the name of this woman with whom I made such a beautiful image. Separated by distance and language, we only got together for a few moments. A moment was enough.
What is the relationship we have with the people we photograph? We rarely give language to these encounters, instead sticking to f-stops, movie types, bokeh. But what is happening between us and those we photograph deserves to be considered. Some of these relationships are long lasting, intimate, trusting and easy going that can easily become obscure – the classic muse. Others are momentary and anonymous, even secretive – an image quickly taken on the street. But the woman in the yellow dress and I shared something different. We came together intentionally to make art; she as performer and I as creator and audience. In doing so, we found a moment of connection, of recognition.
Someone asked me the other day what makes a good photo. There are so many ways to answer – composition, technique, performance. But deep down, I think a good photograph is built on some kind of love. When you take a beautiful photo, you may fall for a moment in love with those you photograph. I know I fell in love for a moment in this old theater in Havana one January afternoon. And maybe beautiful photos are taken when this moment of love is shared.
About the Author: EE McCollum is a photographer and writer living in the American Southwest. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. McCollum is also the editor of Shadow and light magazine. You can find more of McCollum’s work at his website. This article was also published here.
Image credits: Header photo is “Havana Dancer © 2020” by EE McCollum