The light in the gutted movie theater is muted and I immediately begin to consider which camera to use, what ISO I can get away with, what is my fastest lens. The dancers we have come to photograph are changing into costume somewhere in the back of the building that serves as their rehearsal hall.
The drummers who will accompany the dance chat and play an occasional riff on their congas or batá drums, smiling at the rhythms. Raices Profundas (Deep Roots) is a Havana dance company committed to preserving the African origins of Cuban dance and music, especially the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria. I have no idea what to expect from the performance.
I arrived in Havana from the US the day before to join a group of photographers who would spend the week photographing Cuban dance companies. I don’t especially like the workshop environment, usually preferring to work alone. But traveling with an organized group was the only way to visit Cuba in 2020, and it also promised to provide access to several dance companies in the city. I am completely new to Cuba, don’t speak a word of Spanish, and have only my enthusiasm for dance photography to carry me along.
The drums begin; complex rhythms that hold the spirit of the Caribbean along with something deeper, farther away, the African influence. Male members of the company, brightly costumed and fierce with swords and sticks in their hands, pantomime battle. The 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 motion blurred and impressionistic. The individual dancers recede into color and gesture and spirit — capturing these talented performers better, I think, than would a simple portrait.
And then the yellow dress. Worn by a beautiful, black, Cuban dancer, the yellow material gathers a rich light against the blue/grey walls of the old theater. She spins, gathers her full skirt, and releases it as she spins again. The fabric forms arcs and eddies and her dark face floats above the swath of color. I release the shutter again and again. The woman in yellow smiles with a palpable joy in her movement and the rhythm of the drums. And just once, as I glance over the camera and catch her eye, 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 came together for only 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, sticking instead to f-stops, film types, bokeh. But what happens between us and those we photograph deserves consideration. Some such relationships are long-lived, intimate, imbued with trust and ease that can easily turn dark — the classic muse. Others are momentary and anonymous, even secretive — an image taken quickly on the street. But the woman in the yellow dress and I shared something different. We came together intentionally to make art; she as a performer and I as both creator and audience. In doing so, we found a moment of connection, of recognition.
Someone asked me the other day what makes a good photograph. There are so many ways to answer — composition, technique, execution. But at its core, I think a good photograph is built on a kind of love. When we make a beautiful photograph, maybe we fall in love for a moment with those we photograph. I know I fell in love for a moment in that old theater in Havana on a January afternoon. And maybe great photographs are made when that moment of love is shared.
About the author: E. E. 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-at-large of Shadow and Light Magazine. You can find more of McCollum’s work on his website. This article was also published here.
Image credits: Header photo is “Havana Dancer ©2020” by E. E. McCollum