Vanishing Cuba

A book about the Cuban Soul
Words by
© Michael Chinnici | The man, the cross, and the shadow. He walks with a sense of sadness and perhaps a heavy heart. Sixty-plus years of Revolution haven’t exactly created the opportunities he had hoped for, or those he was promised. The cross wasn’t even something he could hold onto—a symbol of faith that was restricted by the communist government after the Revolution. Shadows are a symbol of passing light, a reminder of each passing day. Yet in Cuba, the glass is never half empty; it is always half full. Always keeping the faith for better days ahead. Trinidad 2019

New York-based documentary travel photographer Michael Chinnici travelled to Cuba twenty-four times over seven years, all together photographing the country for almost three-quarters of a year. His travels have resulted in a new book titled Vanishing Cuba, depicting the changes Cuba faces as it emerges from more than 60 years of isolation and decay. Chinnici likes to work in an open style. “I acclimate to my environment, blend in, and gently make my presence known. The results are images that capture authenticity, as opposed to a voyeuristic style.”

What intrigued Michael Chinnici to travel so often to this Caribbean Island? “Going to Cuba was very emotional for me. Cuba had always intrigued me as a young adult, so it was a special experience when I got there. I was surprised by how warm and welcoming the people were, along with their resilience and sacrifice. The United States is responsible for much of their poverty, yet I experienced no animosity. Such lovely people. That is something you have to respect and admire.”

Chinnici was also impressed with their educational system. “They knew more about the political landscape of the United States than most Americans.” He fell in love with the Cubans. “They are beautiful people. Christopher Columbus noted when he landed in Cuba; the native Siboney were some of the kindest people he’d ever met. Even though many of the indigenous population died from disease or by the sword of the Spaniards, their culture still lives on.”

© Michael Chinnici | Waiting for the barber. Three young men wait for the barber to return to his Central Havana barbershop. I took this photo on a Sunday morning while the shop was closed to customers but open for his friends. I found a small opening in a window at street level, looked in, and couldn’t believe my eyes. They graciously allowed me to take the photo. The image is an excellent example of the austerity and simplicity in Cuban culture. In most developing countries, this would be evident only in the inner cities, but in Cuba, it’s everywhere. Central Havana 2016


The book is called Vanishing Cuba, but what exactly is vanishing? “All ancient cultures as we know them are disappearing, due to modern technology and the global village. Eastern cultures are succumbing to western ways. Remote civilizations are disappearing. Cuba is unique with 60 years of isolation and a communist government. The current way of governing is not working. It’s only a matter of time before things change, and when they do, Cuba as we know it will change. But the book is not about politics; it is about art and photography and Cuban culture. So, when I say vanishing, I mean it more from a cultural than a political standpoint.”

© Michael Chinnici | Vanishing Sun. Yet another breathtaking sunset over Havana’s Malecón, the 5-mile sea wall that protects the city from the wrath of the Atlantic Ocean. Every night is another opportunity to capture a magical moment. On this particular evening, the sky came alive with beautiful hues of purple, magenta, pink, red, orange, and yellow. And the light falling on the buildings set them ablaze with reds and oranges. It’s a night I’ll never forget. Central Havana 2019


The photographer doesn’t stick with one genre. “My objective was to capture Cuban life in different ways. Sometimes I photograph architecture, sometimes cars, but the focus is more a slice of life of Cuba. I mainly showcase street photography, portraits, and environmental portraits, with a sprinkling of landscapes. Cubans and Cuban-Americans often say to me: Even though my country is falling apart, you make it look so beautiful.”

© Michael Chinnici | A room with a view. As she gazes out the window reliving her performances in Beijing, Buenos Aires, Paris, Lima, and Cairo, a feeling of happiness fills her heart. Mercy Piedra is a veteran ballerina with the Cuban National Ballet, dancing and traveling internationally for over 20 years. I’ve had the pleasure of photographing Mercy on numerous occasions, including this early morning sunlight-drenched scene in the Semana Santa bedroom of my friend Josephine’s home in Havana. Vedado 2017

The environment portrait is his favourite, like the ballerina on the bed, looking out the window. “She has been a ballerina with the prestigious Cuban National Ballet for 20 years has travelled to Beijing, Cairo, London, Paris, and dozens of cities worldwide. That is quite special for a Cuban. She is looking and remembering her past. This photo tells a story, including a decaying room and a Semana Santa cross on the wall. Putting things in context is important to me. I did stage this photo, but most of my portraitures come naturally.”

© Michael Chinnici | Deep in thought. I met this young girl in a rural section of Trinidad. This neighborhood is so impoverished that it didn’t even have running water or indoor plumbing until recently. She comes from extreme poverty, even by Cuban standards. When I took her photo, I was struck by her expressionless face as she hugged the tattered doll in her arms. I feel many emotions about this image, from my memory of taking it to its impact on me to this day. Trinidad 2014

Black and white and Colour

Chinnici loves both black and white and colour. “To do a book about Cuba in just colour or just black and white seemed wrong to me. To do this, I carefully blended both colour and black and white in the book’s design, which works quite well. There is never a black and white and a colour photo on the same page. The book does not contain formal fine art photography, and as such, I feel this allowed me to mix both forms of photography.”

© Michael Chinnici | Vintage Kitchen. A lost-in-time kitchen in an early twentieth-century twelve-room mansion in the exclusive Vedado neighborhood of Havana. Incredibly, there have been no upgrades since the home was built in 1929. The house fell into disrepair after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, when all businesses were nationalized (another word for confiscated), a communist government was installed, and capitalism was eliminated. There was no longer any income to pay for the maintenance and repairs on such a grand home. Vedado 2017


Michael Chinnici did not only photograph people and scenes; he also collected data of the people. “Interviewing people and asking questions about their lives is very important to me. The book has 300 images, and each photo tells a story (in both English and Spanish). There are ten chapter breaks with stories throughout the book. These include subjects like passion, sacrifice, hope, resilience and struggle.”

© Michael Chinnici | Welcome to our mess. I received a beautiful welcome from this family from their third-floor walkup apartment in Old Havana. The building is in total decay, with individual apartments in varying states of disrepair—an example of government-run housing where no one is responsible for maintaining the building’s exterior. Occupants maintain their own apartments. Sadly, I refer to Cuba as a developing country. However, before the Revolution, Cuba ranked fifth in the hemisphere in per capita income, third in life expectancy, and second in per capita ownership of cars. Old Havana 2015

The Soul of Cuba

The book Vanishing Cuba captured the soul of the country, but what is the soul of Cuba? “Describing the soul of a city or a people is nearly impossible to do. The soul is not something tangible or something we can touch or see. It’s something we feel. It’s a combination of culture, music, cuisine, and history. It’s a vibe. The soul of Cuba exists in its people, their attitude toward life, their vintage cars, their happiness, their resilience. Cubans live every day of their lives with the glass half empty, yet they view it as the glass is half full. That’s amazing! This thing we call “Soul”, will never vanish in Cuba.”

© Michael Chinnici | Bullet Nose. The 1951 Studebaker “Bullet Nose.” A rare find in Cuba—or anywhere in the world. The lines on this car are nothing short of stunning. The details are even more beautiful. And there’s nothing better than coming across a rare and unique American Classic while walking the Spanish Colonial streets of Havana. I loved photographing this beauty from above. A simple twist of the camera, and just the right angle, helps bring energy to the image. Showing only a portion of the hood creates a little mystery. Ahhhh, Cuba. Old Havana 2016

The gear

Michael Chinnici usually shoots with two cameras. One with a wide-angle lens and one with a standard or zoom lens. “Two cameras give me the flexibility to change lens combinations quickly and get the shot I want. I use Fujifilm X Series because they are light, and I love the intuitive manual dials. I can set my aperture, shutter speed, and ISO quickly without even looking at the camera, and I don’t need to scroll down a digital menu screen. The cameras are smaller and less intimidating, which makes them perfect for the type of photography I shoot.”

Michael Chinnici is a New York-based photographer, author, creative director, and designer. He specializes in documentary photography, including visual storytelling, environmental portraits, and people. Vanishing Cuba is Michael’s first published book. The book includes a stunning collection of over 300 photographs and stories from Michael’s 24 trips to Cuba. Vanishing Cuba is about capturing the “Soul of Cuba.” Michael’s love affair with Cuba and the Cuban people comes through in this compelling and beautifully produced book, handcrafted in Italy. The collection depicts the changes Cuba faces as it emerges from more than 60 years of isolation and decay. Michael’s trips to Cuba have yielded tens of thousands of photographs, inspired thought-provoking and emotional stories, and created lifelong friendships. He has traveled the world working in all realms of photography: people, street, landscapes, motorsports, aerial, and fashion. He enjoys the challenges that various photographic disciplines present. He was introduced to photography by his father at the age of eleven. He began his lifelong love affair with photography using his dad’s WW II–era Argus C3 and a basement darkroom. Michael is the Founder and CEO of Photo Workshop Adventures, a premier photography workshop and tour company offering photo-centric cultural adventures in over 150 destinations in over 50 countries. Michael personally leads group and private photo tours and cultural adventures to many countries, including Cuba. He loves sharing his photography experiences and is a frequent speaker at events where he discusses his “Evoking Emotion” approach to photography.

Vanishing Cuba
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