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 work. 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 and photograph their local cemetery. I feel that cemeteries offer a candid glimpse of how people live today. So much culture can be seen in cemeteries through how the living respect and honor their dead.
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.
The expansive cemetery contained above-ground graves topped with concrete slabs. A lot of the slabs, on the older graves especially, had moveable rings on the edges that allowed for people to lift and place these slabs of concrete upon burials. 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 surrounding 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 had been photographing 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 only story I came here to write.
Due to not feeling well, considering I almost fainted not once but twice before I left the cemetery, I only stayed an hour and hoped to return. I had never felt that unwell in my entire time in Cuba.
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 series of black frames. What I found so odd, and had me slightly panicking, was that the back of my camera had suddenly appeared dead on all of the black frames.
To elaborate, I have my gear set up that when I am reviewing photos on the back of my camera, I can see the file number, exposure and sequence on the display with the image. 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. There were numbers on the photos before and after the frames, but no sequence numbers on the black frames.
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 with my friend, 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 and had camera data when looking at them on the computer. This doesn’t make sense!
Furthermore, the camera exposure was similar to the images I shot in the cemetery, which makes complete sense because I know the black frames were missing images I shot in the cemetery. So, I had taken photos outside with nearly the same f-stop, shutter speed and ISO 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. My camera was never stowed while I was touring the cemetery, so it was not shot inside a bag. I am missing photos I remember framing and shooting, and I have been doing this for 18 years professionally.
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. In fact, I am missing most of my cemetery take because of this. I have no other black frames on any of my cameras on any other times I shot in Cuba during the trip.
When I open any black-frame image in photoshop, I can not pull anything out of the frame when using curves or levels. (If I had underexposed something, I would be able to still see some vague shapes when doing this in Photoshop.) 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 bringing a newfound respect and a film camera. I would love to see if this experience happens again on film.
Ronda Churchill is a freelance photojournalist for hire worldwide. Follow her on Instagram @rondachurchill
Contact sheet from 4.30.17. Street photography images prior to shooting at Neópolis Cristóbal Cólon, which starts with blank frames.
Camera data for back-to-back photos black frame (top) and statue shot (bottom). Exposure in blue.
Offerings for Amelia Goyri, “The Miraculous One.” Here is where I nearly fell to the ground from heat.
A mausoleum I was intrigued with. Note see the three graves were broken into.