Two days before leaving Seattle to lead a group of photographers on a cultural tour of Cuba with CreativeLive instructor John Greengo, it hit me.
I knew from a similar trip to Cuba last year that incredibly few people have Internet access in their homes and even if they did, the speeds are so slow that streaming video wouldn’t be a good experience. Cuba’s average salary is just $20 per month, which means that paying to use the Internet at a café just isn’t affordable.
Then there’s government censorship of the Internet—I won’t even go there. You get the picture.
Which meant, I realized, that in a country that has the least access to the Internet in the world (after only North Korea and Syria), the reality is that most people in Cuba had never heard of our little company. They don’t know about what we do, and certainly had not seen any of our classes online. And due to the restricted access to the internet (and thus, to online learning), it’s not as simple as just giving potential students a log-in or a few free classes.
We’d have to hand-deliver the product that we usually stream, we say proudly, all over the world.
Here’s the thing. With a literacy rate of 99.8%, Cuba is a highly educated country. Arts and creative education are seemingly even more encouraged there than in the United States. And even though there’s copious quality online arts and creative education available to people in other nations, that’s just not the case in Cuba.
Bringing things with me to Cuba is something I was already planning. I’d been gathering basic goods that I normally take for granted to bring with me as gifts. When I asked my friend, Cuban photographer, and photo guide Alain Gutierrez, what the most needed items are these days, his response was that “usually, people here find useful medicines, vitamins, crayons for kids, even clothes like t-shirts… You know, anything.”
That’s a seemingly simple request, yet the intense underlying need for ‘anything’ sinks in when you stop to think about it.
Some friends also gave me camera gear to give away, which was really exciting since there are no camera stores in Cuba. These gifts would help a number of people individually, however I wanted to make an even bigger impact.
Because what’s even more long-lasting in value than gear and goods?
So I gathered my supplies. All of them.
Fast forward to Havana. I arrive at the photo school, Academia de Fotografía Cabrales del Valle, and discover it is run out of a one-car garage in the back of the founder’s home.
Alain helped me select this particular school for the donation because it has fewer financial resources than others. They have classes almost daily for about 100 total students over the course of any given week, plus summer programs for younger kids.
As we approached, one of the owners Ramon Cabrales was teaching about 15 mostly young adults with notebooks in hand, sitting in short rows of folding chairs with an old computer projecting slides on a screen. Decorated with old cameras and filled with student images on the walls, I was both impressed and humbled by the tiny space that produces such incredible artists.
Alain translated as John and I described CreativeLive and the variety of photography classes that I hand-carried to Cuba on a hard drive trusting they would find a good home.
I curated a “Best of CL photo curriculum” with wide range of subjects including John Greengo’s epic 5-day Fundamentals of Photography, Sue Bryce’s 28 Days, Photo Week, Photoshop Week, and a smattering of wedding, lighting, posing, food, and newborn photography courses.
They were very grateful and excited about the photography classes, and yet I’m curious if they’ll fully realize what I gave them until they actually dive into the 400+ hours of free content.
I didn’t just bring items and digital files to Cuba; I also brought some precious things back. The stories from the students were incredible.
I talked with a 15-year-old about how I was exactly her age when I took my first photography class and how exciting it is to discover her passion at such a young age.
I met a 45-year-old woman whose two children are now grown. She only recently fell in love with photography and can’t think about anything else.
One student proudly explained that even though they have a modest school with little gear, they have the best teachers any Cuban photographer could hope for.
What struck me about these stories is how similar they are to those we hear from CreativeLive learners all over the world. That’s the beauty of photography and the arts, they can be discovered and learned at any age. They are universal.
The students also expressed that photography is not about the gear, it’s about each artist’s creative mind and the best education is practice and actually doing the work.
We say “it’s not about the gear” often — but meeting this group of artists takes that sentiment to the next level, and reminds me that we can make anything out of nothing. That’s what creativity is, and Cubans have been forced to innovate and create everything out of next to nothing for over 50 years.
I’m humbled, inspired, and grateful for this experience furthering the reach of free CreativeLive education to Cuban photographers who otherwise would not have access. Now that I have a relationship with the school, I look forward to return visits and future projects bridging the gap between photographers in two countries only 90 miles from each other and yet a world away.
Do you have a story of how you’ve changed your life with CreativeLive knowledge and want to tell that story via a blog post and/or video? Let us know!