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Words In Sight – Being Here, Not Knowing Exactly Why

This series of images are little windows into Havana, and capture just a drop of the spirit you feel from the city and it’s people. The energy there is intoxicating, you never know what is going to happen next. Cuba is so evocative, it is like being in the 1950’s, there is an extraordinary aesthetic there. The mix and the diversity of faces is very inspiring and a wonderful city to shoot in.

Why did I go: I first went to Cuba as I’d exhibited in Paris the previous year with a photographer who was based there, I mentioned how much I’d love to do a photo series and he invited me to visit, it was the encouragement I needed to take a risk and hop on a plane. A few months later I went to see what I could produce there. I thought I could use his network more but he was a documentary photographer so didn’t know of any producers or locations etc. I like to construct my images so my requirements were different, I dedicated most of my days to scouting locations and I also went about looking for a local producer who could help organise the shoots especially as I’ve no Spanish. I met with a film producer one morning, he was very busy and I felt he wasn’t the right person but I wasn’t sure how many other options I’d have. On my way home I walked a bit past the house where I was staying by accident, a guy stopped me to ask if I needed help and he’d perfect english so we chatted. He lived in a beautiful Colonial house so I asked if I could see inside, I explained my project and why I was looking for locations, before I left he said “I think I can help you with this project, lets meet later to discuss it more”, we did and he ended up producing all my shoots in Havana. It wasn’t smooth sailing but it was fun, if we were out and I saw an interesting person I’d tell him and he’d go over to explain my project and get there information. It was an organic, random and exploratory process.

I traveled to Cuba on my own, I did all the location and casting in the first few weeks and then flew out an assistant to help during the shoot days, I hired local hair & make-up artists along with a few assistants to help with wardrobe etc. I brought a bag of vintage clothes from London and after the casting, I got more sent over with my assistant, it was very difficult to source any wardrobe in Havana so I’d no choice but to fly it over. All the people I photographed were locals and besides my assistant the team was Cuban.

The first and crucial step was location scouting, I spent a lot of time planning and searching for the right locations, some spaces offer me a great selection of props and furniture others I will add elements to them in order to help create the narrative, also colour is a big consideration so I’ll often add dressing which adds certain tones to the scene.

Pre-Production – First I decide on a narrative or theme, I then start scouting relevant locations, once I have the right environment I’ll start to storyboard it, next stage is the casting, and the final stage is sourcing the wardrobe, props and any other dressing needed. I also create visual moodboards for the hair & make-up artist of how I want the actor to look keeping in mind the style of clothing and overall aesthetic for the photograph I’m aiming for.I think coming from a commercial and film background means I am used to working within a team, I know how to run a shoot to make sure you get the most out of the day. A big bonus is my set design and fashion styling background as it allows me to use all those skills to create all aspects of the picture.

I think coming from a commercial and film background means I am used to working within a team, I know how to run a shoot to make sure you get the most out of the day. A big bonus is my set design and fashion styling background as it allows me to use all those skills to create all aspects of the picture.

We invited all the street cast people and any friends they had, the word was spread and I spent a day photographing anyone who came of all ages. I then selected who I felt would work for the various shots I was planning and I started to map out my schedule of locations, models and props etc. It is a lot to handle on your own, but you just get on with it and I was determined to put my everything into making an interesting series. Everyone who took part were excited, curious and a little nervous about the whole process. I had my producer to help translate for me but I would also move them myself or show them the positions I wanted, it worked out well and I think because everyone cared about what I was trying to create it made it easier.

The producer often took me a local restaurants where only Cubans ate, it was far more authentic and cheaper then any of the central restaurants. I ate lots of fish and rice, I also loved their fresh juices and ate fruit most mornings. As I was friends with the producer he introduced me to the locals and brought me to many fun rooftop bars and I got the chance to speak with people my own age, I found it fascinating comparing our lives, the same age but brought up in very different cultures. I feel they live more in the moment then us, things happen slower in Cuba and they don’t have the same freedom as we do. I really struggled with the lack of internet, it is very hard to find wifi and it often cuts out for hours. The still have shortages, there was one week when we couldn’t buy coffee, and other times when non of my local shops had bottled water, they also experience electricity cuts, I think due to these uncontrollable factors they accept things rather then get stressed out about it. From what I saw they take each day as it comes.

There were several enticing reasons why I picked Havana, the country has this nostalgic air seen through it’s architecture and social behaviours, the people have lived in a very different society then us and now it’s at a crossroads. It’s still unclear where the new open boarders will take it and how it’ll impact a country that has been cut off for so long.

I took a risk by going there with little contacts and not really knowing how I was going to produce a shoot. The first few days I devoured the streets totally entranced by the chaotic range of buildings, the varied styles all sitting next to each other, and the faded grandeur of a city once soaked in money and glamour.

The leap for me was trusting in my instincts and reacting fast to changes in situations and opportunities to make the most of everything that came my way, letting go of my London habits of control and embracing the randomness of how life unfolds here. Being in the moment so I could connect with the people enough for them to trust me and give a part of themselves to the pictures.

The first few days in Havana I walked the streets looking for locations, I came across this abandoned building in the Capital, I could just about see through a crack in the window boards and saw there was greenery growing inside the building. There was no way into the building it was surrounded by boarded up windows and doors. I asked my local friends if they knew anything about the building, they told me to forget it there was no way I could shoot there. On my last day shooting, I was on the street close by that building shooting a couple in the street, there was too much traffic so I went around the corner to get out of the way, to my absolute surprise there was a man sitting outside the abandoned building with a door open. I ran over, not speaking Spanish I used a few words with lots of hand gestures to ask if I could have a look inside. It was a run down theatre and so beautiful, my next photograph that day was of a ballerina, I changed my location and shot her in that abandoned theatre. I love the image and it feels special and it almost didn’t happen.

My creative process has always involved narratives as the basis of the photo, my aim has been to capture an emotional moment in a way that pulls the viewer in and drives them to feel and question what they are seeing. Up until recently I’ve drawn inspiration from my own personal experiences, my first collection ‘Words In sight’ was a series of narrative pictures inspired by poetry I’d written over the past decade. Each picture is a story influenced by who I met and what I saw, an image crafted through exploration.

Setting up shots can take up to three weeks of preparation. First I search for locations which offer me interesting compositions and environments to create the story, I love colour, texture, interesting perspectives and a depth to a space. I then start crafting my narrative, I refer to my poetry to help create a story and core emotion and then I’m ready to commence casting. For my previous series I worked with actors and models, in Cuba I street cast and more often then not it was the first time many of the people had been photographed in this way, which made it even more rewarding for me.

I could not sum up the Cuban look, there has been so much influence from Spain, China, and America, which can be seen through the eclectic ethnic mix walking the streets. The vibrancy of the people oozes out of them in every sense, from the way they walk, dance, talk, laugh and enjoy life and live in the moment.

There is a wonderful story behind the little girl seen in these images, I was walking back for a day scouting locations, I’d not found any kids which felt right for my series and then I walked past this little girl on her way home from school with her mother. I don’t speak Spanish, I past her and just couldn’t keep walking, I had to at least try to talk with her mum, I used the few words I had in Spanish with a lot of hand gestures to explain I was a photographer. The little girl understood and was very excited, I got a number and after a few days arranged to photograph her.

When the producer went to collect the family the morning of the shoot he met her younger sister and rushed back all excited saying I’d love her, so I booked her the following day. I was enchanted by her, there was such depth and sadness in her eyes which was unusual for such a young child. I found her haunting and engaging to photograph, she watched me constantly and without speaking the same language she understood what I was trying to do and she let me into her little world.

I was inspired to take pictures but also to write, and reflect on my own life and how different London is and how easy it can be to get swept away and miss the point of why we do what we do. Havana thought me to be still, exist in the now and strive for what really matters.

“Is happiness with the risk of change? I’ve stood on the edge so many times, it’s always worth every possible risk. One life, One joy, I’m still chasing mine!”

The Hearts Shadow
What will be will be, it’s all ticking inside me
I’m pushed to follow the impulses of my hearts desires
My mind tells me the journey, but my instincts leads the way.
I went over oceans, and flew through the sky
All with the intentions of being here, not knowing exactly why.

Gillian Hyland

is an image maker; she personally composes every aspect of her pictures. Originally from Ireland, Gillian’s career began in publishing, where she worked as a fashion stylist and features writer for a number of well-known national magazines.

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