Tag Archives: travel

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 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

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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.

The Journey

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A man explores the mineral-deposited land at a hot springs in Tecopa, Calif. The small town, although without a stoplight or cell service, is home to many hot springs and draws throngs of tourists each year.

It started with a toothache.

I woke up and went to the dentist to discover that I needed a load of work done. I was in a lot of pain and swapped a 30-minute appointment for two hours in the chair–with a $2,000 price tag.

I was anxious to leave. I had a two-hour drive for an assignment in a tiny desert town that did not have cell phone service.

With no time to lose, I left with a partially numb mouth and loads of worry. I have a dozen outstanding invoices due to me, some of which are late; and one of my biggest clients laid me off without notice, because of budget constraints, the week of Thanksgiving. However, the worry was dissipating and soon replaced with excitement the farther I drove away from Las Vegas.

I enjoy any assignment that takes me to a new place, and photographing a widow of a cannabis legend in the town of Tecopa, Calif. population: 150 is no exception.

Also, the long drive allowed me to stop and explore. As a photojournalist, every drive I do seems to take longer because of this.

I met my source in Tecopa without a minute to spare. Although the shoot, at times, was very challenging, she was extremely pleasant and cooperative, dubbing herself “an old hippie and a stoner.” All in all, I made some beautiful frames that I will have to share in a future post since they are embargoed until then.

On the way out of town, I noticed to my right a photo coming into frame while driving. The scene before me looked like it could have been on another continent. The land was dramatic; the sun was beginning to set; the clouds were particularly amazing; and there was a nice wind playing with a man’s bright red robe. Excitedly, I pulled the car over for about the 10th time that day, jumped out while the car was idling in park, and grabbed my gear.

After shooting for a while, I decided to take the long route home that would have me exiting through another desert town called Pahrump, where I happened upon a wonderful scene. The sky had only become richer since I had left Tecopa 30 minutes from my previous stop-the-car-and-get-out-and-shoot adventure.

I pulled over abruptly dodging dicey construction traffic and captured what looked like God himself lighting a sign just for me. I am not religious, but I know a good photo when I see one. I know an even better photo when I see the juxtaposition of a divine message with a racy town in the background.

Perhaps my story has taken a bit of a detour.

By the time I made it home, I had 632 frames between two camera bodies and one giant toothache.

The next day started with more dental woes, and I found myself sitting in the exact same chair I had been in 24 hours earlier. I was probed and prodded again. Once we were through, the doctor reminded me that he wanted to show me his photo studio. Thankfully, we hadn’t had time the previous day.

“Come here, I want to show you something,” he said with excitement.

See, I met Dr. W in a professional setting years before meeting him as a patient. He was very interested in my photo equipment then and wanted to tell me all about his as well. I recall that I wanted to do my job as opposed to doing what I like to call “talking shop.”

I got out of the big patient chair and followed him into a back room, which he had completely converted into a fully-functioning photo studio equipped with an entire B&H catalog’s worth of equipment and the latest, greatest, Apple products. He proceeded to excitedly show me x, y and z and followed the whole thing up with a quick little photo slideshow on a TV screen larger than the one I have in my living room. The slideshow featured patients and staff he had photographed, concentrating on the dental work he had done, close-ups of teeth and such. There were even frames with subjects wearing flowers and holding food.

While earlier I had tried to be polite and engage in tech-talk, I finally offered a suggestion of using a hair light on one of the subjects. He quickly dismissed me; I could tell he was not really listening. This little show-and-tell was clearly more about him and less about my input and our conversation. I would bargain a guess that it even had a little to do with me being a young, female patient.

Dr. W is a really skilled dentist. My husband and I would not be going to him if he weren’t. Heck, he was the only one to finally give me a proper diagnosis after years of walking through other dentists’ doors. I am very thankful for that.

However, Dr. W is not a photographer. It is clear that he has had no formal training. His portraits that he displays proudly in his office lack any emotion. The horizon line is constantly tilted, and the lighting is wrong. Also, I noticed that every woman he showed in his 5-minute slideshow presentation had bare shoulders and arms, as opposed to the shots of men wearing collared shirts. Did he read somewhere in a handbook that putting a woman in a tube top (hopefully there was a tube top) creating the illusion that she was topless or bare was good? Or professional? These are patients and staff.

I left his office for a second day in a row feeling sore and a bit depressed. The entire time I was checking out Doc’s Photo Studio, I had wished that I had half of his studio set-up in my own office. I remembered those outstanding invoices and the other half of the $2,000 I still owed him for my dental work. Life is so ironic like that, isn’t it?

But then something happened. My editor from my Tecopa assignment returned my call while I was making the 10-minute drive home. After discussing some specifics about photo distribution, I filled her in on my pervious day and experience with the widow. I told her about the funny hiccups we had–quite frankly things I would expect to encounter with a woman who had been smoking marijuana nonstop all her life, and my editor and I laughed. “It looks like you really tapped into your reporting skills,” she said.

That stuck.

I may not have all the studio equipment that I desire or the newest MacBook Pro, but my older, updated one is doing just fine for now as I type this blog post. Yeah, I would love to order some new gear, but I know how to light a great photo with any camera and how to listen–to really listen–to someone tell me their story. Also, my very first camera, my father’s hand-me-down Minolta, worked just fine for me back then as well. I even won a few awards with frames that I shot on that old beast.

In the end, I would not trade any of my photo experience for any amount of gear or money; I am already a very wealthy person. What started with a toothache, ended with something much better than a medical fix. (Although I sure will take that pain free mouth sooner rather than later).

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A family walks along the path to a hot springs easily accessible by the main road.

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Pahrump advertises: Jesus (foreground) and Alien Fireworks (background)

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Tecopa, California.

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A man practices tai chi on the top of a high dune covered in minerals in Tecopa.

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A rusted water container is marked “FIRE WATER” at Charleston View on the boarder of California and Nevada.

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A man dressed in an orange wrap explores near a hot springs in Tecopa. He was one of several in a similarly-dressed party. I attempted to converse with them to see if they were Buddha or Hare Krishna, but there was a language barrier. A member in his party was from Thailand.