Let me start by saying: You can always say no to your Priest. The story sounded simple "just travel to Cuba for a piece we want to do on this priest who is considered a 'rebel' by the Castro regime." The word "rebel" is actually what you'd think of Castro, Che Guevara, rebels of the American Revolution, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, James Dean, Mohamed Ali... but a Cuban priest? This was 1995 and it turned out that a bit of news had filtered out of Cuba that in the small town of Palma Soriano Father Jose Conrado on his Sunday masses was serving a few more "spiritual blessings" besides the Holy wine and the bread. He was also speaking about the freedom of a person, human rights and fulminating against Castro's regime. All this form of "free speeches" sadly had been controlled & censured in communist Cuba since the triumph of the revolution in 1959. Its most salient effect was scrapping on the surface of the disenchanted philosophy of the Cuban leadership. The magazine wanted me there in a dash. I made a few calls to the Cuban Interest session in Washington, DC, which serves as an "embassy" since there are not really diplomatic relations between the two countries. I was told "drop by tomorrow before 11am and you will get your visa." Usually getting a visa is more complex and it takes time but after the many visits down to the island some connections were built and now it came handy. Two days later I was flying from Wash DC to Miami. Then another plane to the Dominican Republic so I could catch a plane to either Havana or Santiago de Cuba. The small town where the priest serve God and his flock was closer to Santiago de Cuba so instead I flew there. It was an old Russian plane and when the engine roared to life it reminded me more of an old truck than a flying vessel. From the plane's air vents I could actually see the coldness coming out or the way you see your breath when you blow out into the cold night. I didn't want to put any fears on my air travel thoughts.. but the uneasy "I seeee..." crept into my head. The lady next to me was praying in Spanish and I wanted to ask ask her to pray for me too. It turned out that the trip was perfect and the landing was a much anticipate pleasure.
In Santiago I met Jorge Luis, a local person, who had served as my assistant and my guide in previous trips. Everybody in Cuba wants to be your guide. And after my many trips to Cuba I knew the place better than most Cubans including this one. Is very difficult and costly for Cubans to travel across their beautiful land and most of them don't have the resources or the cars. We hopped into his old 1956 white and blue Chevy and took off. After a few hours on the road and inside this ample heavy steel cage my body was aching from the rattling metal walls, the shattering of the piston, the crunching of the transmission and the puffing of the old engine. Each mile was like the final "puff puff" yet this old Detroit beauty kept on rocking while I wished for some comfort. The window was totally open yet all we got was a hot blast of air. The sun was still high, sweat dropped down from our faces like a leaking faucet and baked our skin on low setting. We could actually see it turning into the color of a Tennessee Apple. After kilometers and kilometers of serpentine roads and castigating the tires through isolated villages we arrived to Palma Soriano a couple hours before the sun disappeared behind the mountains. The town is small and rest high up in the mountains and sits on the banks of the Cauto River. The winds blows in a friendly way and refreshing air pumps into your lungs and caress your face in a relaxing way.
This zone is fertile land and produce lots of coffee, Cacao, sugar cane, maize which makes it a a strong commercial agriculture venue to the rest of the island. I got out of my car, did some stretching and crossed the street to ask for directions and like all over Cuba the towns people have friendly faces and inquisitive eyes eager to know "what are you doing here with those cameras." We went straight to Father's Conrado home which was next to the cathedral. He was a youthful, dulcet typed of man that had been eating well and for sure there wasn't anything turgid about him. His bright eyes and round face reminded me of those Hollywood character actors that their only job is to make the audience laugh and to make the movie less dramatic. I spent a few days shooting him but this is what will always stay in my mind. One of the town matriarch who was past her 90's had passed away and a painful void was left. Her funeral was happening the following day or the day of my departure. Father Conrado approached me just after lunch and told me about this lady and what a pillar of woman she had been for the community. He supplicated to me that it would be great if I could come to the wake and take some photos. I should had say no right away but a photographer can't say no specially when a man of God is asking you. Her family was all for it and welcome me. Again I couldn't say not to that either and that was my 2nd mistake.
I arrived at the wake a bit past 7pm and it was dark outside already. I entered a large room were the crowd was cramp for space and it was so hot that you couldn't tell the tears from the sweat. I had to fight my way across this wide reception area into the direction of a smaller room that sat all the way in the back on the right hand side as I walked in. I could had bet my savings that most town folks were here tonight. As I crawled my way forward on both sides of me I could see sets of large open windows. Outside on the street looking into the packed waiting room were the wet sad eyes of the rest of the town. In a very quiet way I finally entered the small room. Father Conrado and members of the family were already standing around the open casket. Slowly I pulled out of my bag my quiet Leica M6 camera. I started snapping images but the light was as bad as a burned light bulb. I had to get closer and my next choice was to grab a chair. I placed the chair next to the wooden open box, climbed up and I could see the ghostly sleeping old leathered face... then continued taking some images. The light didn't get better and I decided to use a flash. From my chair and looking down I clicked several times.. No flash. I tried again and was saying, "flash flash please break down any other given time but no now." Still no POPS and no lights. I leaned over towards the casket and try to shake the camera some hoping that the flash would engage and actually fire. It was then that all went wrong. It all seemed like a very slow film or the way all motion freezes and ,"good lord what am I doing here. ANYWHERE ELSE BUT HERE." As I shook the camera one more time the flash came sailing off the camera and felt down in flipping motions, or the way an Olympic diver would do it, and with a muffled sound rested inside the open casket and next to this lady's head. Once it landed there, in a very out of this world experience from a TWILIGHT episode, the flash decided to POP!! POP!! POP!! Three fast over exposed bright light were illuminating the dead woman's face in a very spooky way. I was in a trance and so were the people standing around the body.
In this very awkward eerie moment father Conrado, calmly and like a man that had seeing it all, placed his hand inside the coffin and removed the flash and handed to me. In my very confused moment I wanted to tell Padre Conrado, "Please keep the flash as a gift" but my thoughts and my words were out of sync. He continued praying and I lowered myself from the chair unto the flat concrete ground and walked out of the room while this surreal moment reminded in my head. Outside and away from the heat and the crowd the cool evening breezed greeted me and then.. FINALLY ... I knew I should had say no...