Capturing Moments in Havana

February 25, 2016  •  1 Comment

I expected to learn a lot from Peter Turnley when I signed up for his photography workshop in Havana. I was not disappointed.

Peter is a premier photographer and journalist. He doesn't specialize in studio work. He's known for his news photography and for his work on the streets of Paris, Havana and other cities, capturing "moments of the human condition," as his recent Havana exhibition was called. He got started when he was 16. Until that time, he and his twin brother David had been focused on football. Peter suffered a serious knee injury, and while he was in the hospital, his parents bought him a book of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson. For Peter and David, seeing this book was akin to what must have happened the first time Tiger Woods saw his father hit a golf ball. It lit a fire. Within weeks, they were making a series of photographs in their hometown of Ft. Wayne, Indiana which were so good that they are still exhibited today. Within a year or two, David flew to New York with their portfolio, talked his way into the offices of photo editors and art directors at major publications, and launched their professional career. Peter eventually moved to Paris and served what amounted to an apprenticeship in the school of French photography that included Cartier-Bresson. He is both a natural and very well-trained. (You can see his work at

So the first thing he taught us about making pictures surprised me. He advised us to set our cameras on shutter priority, at whatever speed we needed to make certain camera movement didn't soften our pictures. He suggested adjusting the ISO setting in our cameras to adapt to differing amounts of light and using the matrix metering setting. 

This surprised me. I was in thrall to the story I read long ago about how Ansel Adams made his famous "Moonrise Over Hidalgo, New Mexico," photograph. Adams was driving along late in the day after taking many shots and had one glass film plate left for his box camera. He saw the moon rising and knew he had to get the exposure right the first time, having only the one plate left. Adams, of course, had memorized the proper exposures for a wide variety of images, including a rising moon. He set up his camera and nailed the picture in one shot. So I have always figured that a real pro shoots in manual mode and knows, through experience or memorization, what the proper exposure settings should be.

That's not what Peter taught. The electronics in the modern camera, he said, were far more capable than we could be of assessing the proper exposure settings, at least quickly. He wanted us to rely on those electronics. We were to set or re-set the camera whenever we went outdoors or indoors. We were to be ready to operate is if there were a special neuron between our hearts and the finger on the shutter release button, reacting instantaneously.

I would have thought that if a pro used any auto setting it would be aperture priority. But Peter did not. He values crispness in an image and his first priority is making sure that neither subject nor camera movement causes blur. I usually walked around Havana with my camera on S and my shutter speed set to 1/250th of a second, because I had a heavy 24-70 zoom lens and I wasn't sure I could hold the camera as steadily as needed with a lower shutter speed. 

After a day or two, I could see the value in this practice. But I found myself using the exposure compensation button a lot, kicking the exposure up one or two stops, especially when subjects were back lit or had dark complexions. Using shutter speed priority means the background in most shots is going to be fairly sharp. That suits Peter. He's usually trying to get an image that gives the viewer a sense of both the subject and the environment. When we zoomed in close to a subject, Peter's critique was likely to be, "Step back. Let it breathe." He wanted us to use 35 mm lenses so we'd capture not only a person, but a sense of that person's world.

Far more important than the technical details of how Peter shot was the attitude he brought to shooting. He demonstrated this by example. On one of our first mornings in Havana we went to a neighborhood called Regla to see, among other things, a Catholic church that is hospitable to the local population's adherence to santeria, the traditional African religion the ancestors of many Cubans practiced. In certain parishes, the church has stopped fighting santeria and allows parishioners to blend the two. This was one of them; the statue of the Virgin Mary was black and she was evidently conflated with the santeria goddess Yemaya. Yemaya is associated with the sea; Havana Bay laps at a seawall steps from the church. When Peter saw a woman in a white turban standing at the edge of the bay, seemingly praying, he wanted to photograph her.

I watched as he approached her and I saw her emphatically shake her head no. At this point, I would have apologized for intruding and walked away. But Peter very calmly began a dialog with this woman. He later told us he spoke to her from the heart about how important communication between people and cultures is to the future of the world. After a while, he started making photographs of her. I took a couple of shots of the two of them from long range, but I didn't go closer. I didn't want to interfere in the moment Peter created between this woman and himself. He later showed us a wonderful portrait he made of this woman with the blue sky and the bay shoreline in the background.

So that was the big lesson I took from Peter Turnley. It's not enough to follow good technical practices like keeping your camera ever ready. You have to believe in yourself and what you're doing. You have to have a way with people. And you have to stick with a situation long after most photographers would have given up, until you get the image you need.

I tried to apply those lessons that morning and throughout our week in Havana, seeing people in the streets, or in places like a dance academy which we toured. Some of the images I made are on this page, along with a picture of Peter talking to the woman on the edge of the bay. But I came to the conclusion that photography is a little bit like golf. There is no "ah-ha" moment when the secret becomes clear. You can watch a great player swing. You can even take a lesson from that player and learn something useful to improve your own swing. But you will likely only improve slowly, and only with practice. In the end, you will only be really good at it if you have both dedication and talent.






Dennis P(non-registered)
I had the pleasure of taking Peter's Havana workshop this year and I can't think of anything to add to your five pieces here. Your words and photography are excellent.
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