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Creepy Cuba

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4.30.17 Neópolis Cristóbal Cólon

There are two types of people in this world: believers and non-believers; I am a believer. I am a believer of spirits and the paranormal.

I think a lot people are skeptical until they have an experience that catapults them into the believer category. I was converted a long time ago, but today on this rainy and dreary day in Las Vegas, I will tell you my most recent story that has kept me firmly checking the believer box.

Last week, I visited Havana, Cuba, for a work trip. I have been slowly going through some 3,500 images I shot while also working for clients and visiting with family in town. One of the days I eagerly anticipated editing was the day I visited Neópolis Cristóbal Cólon.

Neópolis Cristóbal Cólon is a massive cemetery in Havana and is the largest in the Americas spanning 140 acres. It was founded in 1846 and is world renowned.

Any time I visit another country or US region, I love to walk in their local cemetery. I feel that cemeteries offer a candid glimpse of how people live today. So much culture can be seen in cemeteries and the living need not be present to see it. You only need to be there.

On the particular day I visited Neópolis Cristóbal Cólon, the humidity was a stifling 80-90% on top of a nearly 80-degree temperature. In fact, most of my days in Cuba were of this awful recipe. I do not fare well in humidity, and every day, I took a “siesta” that included going back to my room, having a cold shower, and resting. This day, I was determined to power through my siesta because of my schedule. I shouldn’t have for I did not feel well.

The expansive cemetery contained aboveground graves topped with concrete slabs. There were also many large mausoleums housing wealthy families’ remains. I recall one point where I was photographing near a statue of a mother. People had walked up behind me and started chanting and clanking the rings on the concrete slabs. Their actions bore right into me, and I staggered backwards. I nearly passed out right then and immediately stumbled to the nearest tree for shade.

When researching for this blog, I discovered I was at the tomb of Amelia Goyri, who is known as La Milagrosa (The Miraculous One) and died in 1901 while giving birth. A marble statue adorning a cross, woman and baby in arms marks her grave. Her body was exhumed years after her death and was uncorrupted, which is a sign of sanctity in the Catholic faith. Her baby, who was buried at her feet, was allegedly found in her arms upon exhumation. For this reason, her grave has become a pilgrimage site of sorts for those who are hopeless and have special requests. I almost passed out at her grave while photographing the shrine around it.

But this isn’t the story I came here to write.

Due to not feeling well, considering I almost fainted two times before I left the cemetery (this is for sure a record for me in all of the hot and humid places I have documented in my 18 years of being a photojournalist), I do not have many photos from the cemetery. In fact, I only stayed about an hour and hoped to return.

That evening, I was talking with a new friend about my time in the sacred place. I retrieved my camera to scroll through a few photos and to ask him a question about a grave and that is when I saw it. There wedged between street photography and headstone shots, were a handful of black frames. What I found so odd was and had me slightly panicking was that the back of my camera had suddenly appeared dead on those  black frames.

To elaborate, I have my gear set up that when I am reviewing photos, I can see the file number, exposure and sequence. An example of such is “1/2025” (photo shot 1 of 2,025). When I came to the black frames, I did not see any camera data.

I was so worried that the camera card was corrupted (ruined card and lost photos) that I took it out of the camera at that moment, stowed it, and grabbed a new card.

But this is where it gets even weirder.

Not only did these frames not show any camera data on the back of my camera in the review mode, but also they were actually exposed in the same exposure as the images that appeared right after them. (I only had changed the ISO from 400 to 250). So, I had shot images outside with the same f-stop, shutter speed and similar film speed as the frames after them, but they came out black. How is this possible? By the way, if you are outside and expose too much, you would get a practically white frame, not black. And no, I do not own a lens cap.

And then as I looked through more of my take, it happened again both times only at the cemetery, and then the rest of the day’s images were fine. I am missing most of my cemetery take because of this.

When I open the image in photoshop, I can not pull anything out of the frame when using curves or levels. I find this very odd too.

Camera mishap is actually not the first time something has happened with my gear while visiting a somewhat eerie place, but I won’t launch into that story now. In fact, you can read about it here: http://dailyegyptian.com/31215/archives/devil_10-9_cm-death-by-a-broken-heart/

In the end, I was not able to return to Neópolis Cristóbal Cólon due to time constraints. I know that I will return to Cuba in the future, and when I do, I will be visiting the cemetery again and brining a newfound respect.

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Contact sheet from 4.30.17. Street photography images prior to shooting at Neópolis Cristóbal Cólon, which starts with blank frames.

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Camera data for back-to-back photos black frame (top) and statue shot (bottom). Exposure in blue.

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Offerings for Amelia Goyri, “The Miraculous One.” Here is where I nearly fell to the ground from heat.

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A mausoleum I was intrigued with. Note see the three graves were broken into.

Children of Fremont

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Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas is home to historic casinos and is littered with personality. It is a magnet for street performers, otherwise known as buskers, who make their living on the 1,500-ft. stretch of heavily trampled upon road that is restricted to pedestrian traffic.

Every time I find myself in the popular area, I am intrigued by the youngest of tourists that make their way through my fair town and wonder what sort of questions they may have about what they see. How do they process it all? What do their parents think? Why are they up at this hour; and did they recently get off an overseas flight and are hardwired for another time zone? My questions are endless.

One thing is certain: the youngest pair of eyes is guaranteed to see it all on any given evening in Sin City. What this means for the child, I do not know. Do we ever quite know?

Words that made the cut

Working as a photojournalist has made me extremely vigilant. I know that I am more observant, attentive, and perhaps even intuitive than most of my friends and family.

While sitting in a Starbucks editing, I see a woman to my left that is made up head-to-toe. She looks like a walking Photoshop image of what most American women, sadly, wishes they could be. I suspect this young woman has had plastic surgery by observing her facial features that look too angular, too symmetric, too perfect and unflawed. Her makeup looks airbrushed to excellence. She totes a name brand handbag and a gold iPhone. She oozes money.

On the other side of her is a homeless man. He has been here awhile, I presume, and has been here long after the aforementioned women left. He has nervously table-hopped several times. His sneezes have received many, “God bless you”s. He uses rough brown coffee shop napkins as tissues to loudly clear his nose. He is thin and wears many dirty layers including a jacket that has a small patch of rhinestones on them, bright stones that remind me of the woman.

I can not help but think of how often our lives cross such extremes. How everyone has their own agenda and does not see the world around them. How people get wrapped up in themselves and do not really see their community, their peers, or even their loved ones. Every day I am thankful for my gift.

One day, I will write. I hope. Until then, I think I may go buy this guy a sandwich.

Perspective

“I don’t like to smile. Because of my teeth,” he said pointing to his open mouth while he spoke. A gap was visible where front upper and lower teeth should be.

I met Michael outside his new apartment at The Salvation Army. The apartment was hardly new to the shelter’s campus; however, a home was new for Michael.

Michael is transgender and until recently was homeless. The Salvation Army offered Michael months of safe overnight housing in a dorm for transgender individuals before he was able to receive a caseworker and an apartment.

Colorful necklaces adorned his chest and bright beads were threaded on his long, curly hair. He wore torn tights, knee-high socks and furry high-heeled boots with little pompom tassels. His outward appearance was fun, funky and loud.

His voice was quiet. His eyes were even quieter.

I wondered who Michael was and how he arrived at the door of The Salvation Army in an area nicknamed “The Homeless Corridor” downtown. Where was he from and what was his family like?

Michael me made me think of my Michael–my brother–and all of the hardships and obstacles that my sibling overcame growing up as a gay man. I saw my brother struggle. I’m sure the Michael before me had struggled as well.

Had Michael struggled with substance abuse? His empty mouth and complexion made me wonder. Why does Michael prefer to be called the male pronoun “he” yet identify as a female?

My time, unfortunately as it often is for photojournalists in shrinking newsrooms, was limited. I had two other shoots that day and all were on deadline.

As I drove away from the shelter, my heart was full of gratitude. I thought of my warm and welcoming family back home in St. Louis that raised me well. I thought of my husband, our secure home, and my comfortable bed that I take for granted each night. I thought of my bank accounts that were not empty and realized that late payments owed to me were not the crisis I thought they were that morning. I was thankful that I owned transportation and could drive my car to the nearby library to return items after our meeting and also that I had the cash to grab a quick meal before my next shoot.

But most of all, I was thankful for meeting Michael. Although our meeting was brief and he didn’t want to smile for photographs, he gave me his time and respect. He gave me perspective.

Michael sits on the edge of a bed in the Safety Dorm for transgendered individuals at The Salvation Army Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. Michael spent three months in the Safety Dorm prior to getting his own transitional apartment on campus. The Safety Dorm’s purpose is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of transgendered individuals who come through the shelter. (Ronda Churchill/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Michael sits on the edge of a bed in the Safety Dorm for transgendered individuals at The Salvation Army Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. Michael spent three months in the Safety Dorm prior to getting his own transitional apartment on campus. The Safety Dorm’s purpose is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of transgendered individuals who come through the shelter.

Hot Zone

Review-Journal reporter Michael Lyle, right, participates in a zombie apocalypse simulation at Adventure Combat Ops Tuesday, June 30, 2015, in Las Vegas. Adventure Combat Ops allows people to learn about basic tactical concepts by training with former military prior to taking part in a combat simulation. (Ronda Churchill/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Zombies. Fog. Absolute Darkness. These are items that do not play well with camera gear.

I was assigned to follow a reporter prior to the opening week of Las Vegas’ newest attraction: Adventure Combat Ops. The reporter was set to participate in a 60-minute intense training class with fellow zombie hunters led by former military badasses before engaging in mock combat.

It was an intense 100+ degrees outside; there was no air conditioning in the massive warehouse/training center/eerily-well-captured idea of a post-apocalyptic suburban town. I found myself in close proximity to a lot of young men, and a handful of women, who were eager to get to training and to hunting down the bad guys.

After trailing the reporter in his training session, an air raid siren went off and groups were quickly ushered into the dark “town.”

I’m not going to lie. I was nervous. I had several-thousand-dollars-worth of equipment around my neck along with my only weapon, a neon green glow stick on a string that was supposed to scream to players and zombie actors alike, “Hey don’t shoot me! I’m of no danger!”

However, I felt like a tiny lightning bug in a giant backyard waiting for mischievous children and animal predators alike to come get me.

You think I’m paranoid? Everyone around me donned assault rifles with BB pellets.

Ronda, get some good photos and get the heck out of here. Don’t get shot. Don’t get shot. Don’t get shot. I told myself when I ran with the reporter to our first location. However, after I made a few frames, my mind quickly shifted to thinking of how awesome the experience was.

I started getting gutsy. I stood outside the protective walls of homes (top photo). I came out from behind a junk car and exposed myself (bottom photo).

And then I got shot.

Nah, but that would have made a great story to tell the doctor, wouldn’t it?

After my 120-minute experience with wanna-be soldiers, I realized that besides all of us dripping with sweat, we also shared a truly unique experience. Oh, and I realized that I don’t think I want to be a war photojournalist anytime soon. I’m quite positive that my curiosity would get this cat killed asap. Until now, I’m stuck to covering things on my home turf in Sin City, like an over-priced and entirely fun zombie-killing adventure.

* check out lvrj.com this Sunday for reporter Michael Lyle’s personal account.

Saturday Night in Sin

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It should seem fitting that only in Sin City, would I be sent to cover an assignment at a church. After spending nearly two hours at the church with the kindest strangers I have encountered in a long time and listening to the Rev. George Balgan embrace his small and tightly-knit group of parishioners with an open heart, I left the little makeshift church that is nestled in a commercial center among ethnic restaurants. Within 20 minutes and less than 2 miles of a drive, I was standing in a strip club. My next assignment was to cover a comedian who was performing in the club’s showroom. A burlesque act offered entertainment in between a set.

When I approached the club, I kept thinking of the kind reverend as I passed two questionable individuals who sat on the front stoop pouring alcohol from a water bottle they retrieved from a dirty backpack. Once inside, I immediately noticed that the club was huge, shiny and impressive. A lot of men walked by in nice attire admiring the women who wore more makeup and hair products than clothing. The place oozed of riches, alcohol, and desires. It was quite the opposite of the cozy church I had just been in where everyone eagerly greeted me and quickly asked me to return.

A while later when my photos were shot and I was good and tired, I left the club. I was putting away my cameras in my car in the parking lot, and I noticed the club had a large spotlight projecting into the atmosphere. The beams of light flickered and danced in the sky calling people to come and worship.