Speaking about Cuba this Wednesday in Chicago

cuban photographer in Havana

Talking with residents during my ponytail-“barbudo” days while working in the Havana bureau for the Chicago Tribune in 2001. 


Just a short note to say that I’ve been asked to talk about Cuba on Wednesday (that’s tomorrow) for a chat at the Cultural Center of Chicago on Cuba.  It’ll be more of a conversation than a lecture, although I will be showing pictures and scanning some negatives as much as I can to show. It’s free and will only take an hour. Come by at 1pm. Here are some more details:

Wednesday – 1/21/2015 –  1-2pm
Chicago Cultural Center
Garland Room Fl 1
78 E Washington St Chicago, IL, 60602-4801
Free. Open to the public.

If possible,  it’d be great to stick around afterward and chat about all things Cuba. One hour isn’t enough time!

Interesting tidbit – one of the reasons why I majored in political science at Northwestern and made Cuba the focus of a thesis was because of a class where a professor dissected the Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco. It was mesmerizing. I remember thinking, and this idiocy is why I can’t visit family? I became fascinated by how politics can affect our world and shape experiences for generations.

Some of the questions we’ll get into are: How can the two countries work together to create a positive future? How has the embargo affected life on the island? What kinds of stories about Cuba are missing from our media?

Heady stuff.  Whether we can answer all those questions will be up for debate, but if you are planning on visiting Cuba or are fascinated as I am with the country, this will be a great primer for your trip.


Daily Photojournalism Withdrawal Disorder


(An x-ray may not reveal this underlying condition…)


It happens to many of us. Photographers don’t talk about it much. TMI.

After we find creative opportunities that entice us to leave our daily newspaper jobs, we move on with our careers.

Then, we go through withdrawal. We’ve photographed for decades on a daily basis around a newsroom of colleagues. Something doesn’t feel right.

Your doctor is familiar with this syndrome.  You may experience the following symptoms: Continue Reading

6,000 Reasons Why the Embargo Won’t Go Quietly



©1999 Alex Garcia

So I’m walking through Havana one day and see the picture at top and think to myself, that’s pretty amazing. It was 1995. Relations between our two governments were tense but I’m staring at the words “New York”, in the heart of Havana, chiseled in stone.  As I found out later, the bank was one of 11 expropriated branches of the National City Bank of New York, which later became Citibank.

The value of its branches when seized after the Revolution was estimated at $6 million.

But Citibank became embroiled in a 22-year battle over the expropriation, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The decision had implications for how U.S. entities could recoup funds when another country seizes its assets.

Some five years later, I’m walking by the exact same location and looked up. Different sign. Again, I thought, that’s pretty amazing.

Like this branch, thousands of properties across Cuba were confiscated after the Revolution. I have family who came here and had to leave everything behind except what they could carry with them. It’s both a financial and emotional issue. The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission recognizes almost 6,000 claims, the vast majority of them from individuals.

Under the Helms-Burton Act, the embargo isn’t going anywhere until these claims are satisfied. How that will happen would take something of a miracle, given that the Cuban government doesn’t have the money to pay and many of the properties don’t even exist anymore (or are even worth claiming).

Cuba will likely advance the argument that its losses against the embargo should be taken into consideration as well.

Even with the best negotiation and the best signage, there really is no papering over this issue.




Stumbling into Cuba’s History


©2014 Alex Garcia


©2014 Alex Garcia


News that Cuba and U.S. might finally normalize relations has put my normal plans to a stop today. I can’t stop thinking about my relationship to the island.

Several years ago, before working for the Tribune’s bureau in Havana, I was a photographer in Orange Country for the Los Angeles Times. I had only been there 3-4 years but had a decision to make. I was in my 30’s, realizing that it was now or never if I was ever going to act on a passion to deepen my connection to my father’s homeland. I could ask for a leave of absence for 6 months to pursue a study program in Havana, or leave the paper and do the same. Gratefully, the editor at the time, Colin Crawford, approved my return (those were different days). I knew that if he hadn’t, I was single and could make it on my own – a “Hail Mary” pass.

It was an incredible trip, and if you ever are thinking to yourself whether to pursue a personal project that could interrupt your life, know that it could be now or never. I went as a student and stayed true to that mission by largely foregoing photography in order to forge connections to family that had been dormant for decades because of our governments’ political divide. I wanted to see what I could experience beyond for the typical narratives that you know about the country.

But I stumbled into history twice, completely by accident. The first was not long after I arrived, when it was announced that the remains of Che Guevara would be returned from Bolivia in a procession that would move across the island. His remains would also lie in state in a very small coffin, where thousands of Cubans waited in the longest lines you’ve ever seen to pay their respects. Since then, there was some doubt about whether it was all just a symbolic ceremony.

The second was the visit of Pope John Paul II. All visitors with U.S. passports had to leave the country prior to the visit, but I was able to return for the week-long event with my student visa in order to witness all the positivity in the Catholic community. From a sad and mourning event to one filled with hope and joy. It was an amazing roller-coaster of emotion. In those days, there wasn’t an internet and this was all on film. My pictures have largely never been seen.

A few years later, however, my experience proved invaluable. The Tribune Company won approval to open a bureau on the island and I hopped to it, staying three months.

As a child, I could not understand why I could not visit my family in Cuba. It affected me so much, apparently, that when my grandmother made her one and only visit, I apparently declared I would see them in Cuba.

Years later, when I finally did make the first trip while at the Los Angeles Times, I rolled into my father’s hometown in a Soviet-made Lada taxi. It was dark and I could barely see the people at the end of the sidewalk outside the family home. I heard the voice of my aunt, the one who had accompanied my grandmother on her one and only visit to the U.S.

She said, “When I heard one of our family members in Chicago was coming for a visit, I knew it was you, Alex.”




What Happened to Soldier Field?


Soldier Field

©2014 Alex Garcia

In case you don’t know about the month-long storm on the lakefront, the architect for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art along Chicago’s lakefront released his design last month. Because of its size and other-worldly appearance, it was widely criticized, most notably by Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic Blair Kamin, whose unmincing words can be seen below the screen grab of his article, above. The Friends of the Parks has launched a federal lawsuit saying the city and the Park District overstepped their authority – so the whole thing is a mess.

As someone who used to photograph for Kamin’s articles at the Trib, and as someone who passed by Soldier Field many times a week along Lake Shore Drive, what most bothers me is the architect’s illustration you see at top. It’s inaccurate at best, and deceptive at worst.  At bottom is a photo I took from the closest I could get to the same vantage point of the sketch, which was probably from the roof of McCormick Place behind where I was standing.

The sketch completely eliminates the controversial western part of the Soldier Field addition, which is considered the last big architectural mistake by many along the lakefront. It has a spaceship like appearance. What Blair Kamin calls, “Klingon Meets Parthenon”.

Normally when an architect unveils their project, they are anxious to show how they have shaped the building to fit its environment, both functionally and aesthetically. At least that’s been my experience, unless someone wants to avoid an embarrassing project.

In this case, the other-worldly addition to Soldier Field probably accentuated the other-worldly design of the Lucas Museum, feeding criticism that the lakefront was becoming too, well, spacey. The citizens of Chicago probably didn’t need that reminder, or they thought Chicagoans couldn’t handle the truth about the future lakefront.

That, or the spaceship on Soldier Field was getting maintenance done on the morning the sketch artist showed up.

On Chicago’s lakefront, anything’s possible, I guess.





13 Signs Your Politics Might be Seeping into Your Journalistic Storytelling

I was almost a social psychology major at Northwestern. It fascinated me, our behavior as social animals. The Bystander Effect and the Milgram Experiment were the kinds of topics that I still think about, years later. What most struck me was cognitive dissonance and groupthink, when we become unaware of the subconscious decisions we take in an attempt to achieve a cohesive narrative about ourselves and others. These two together are particularly troublesome in a newsroom environment. Once a narrative takes hold, others from a newsroom are less likely to challenge the “conventional understanding” – especially if it’s approved by an experienced journalist or editor.  At some point, the prevailing belief becomes an assumption that informs and shapes future narratives.

I read the news too and probably am not the only person to see that my opinions, ideas and beliefs are sometimes summarily dismissed or completely misunderstood. It’s what happens when your worldview is not part of the groupthink narrative. But hey, we’re all human.

So my 13 signs of encroaching politics within the work of journalists are in part based on my observations as a reader. With the lead-up to this week’s Election Day, I thought to have some fun with my very good-natured editorial colleagues:

Continue Reading

7 Ways Experience Makes You a Better Photographer






All images ©2014 Alex Garcia

It was déjá vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once said. I was roaming the campus of my alma mater recently, taking pictures for Northwestern University. Some 25 years ago this very year, I was doing exactly the same thing as the yearbook and newspaper photo editor. It was a trip down memory lane, and I was tickled at the opportunity, which I explored more than once.

What was instructive was just how much more productive I was this time around. As a student, I remember spending waaay too much time trying to find photographs, carrying my camera in desperate hopes of populating the yearbook with beautiful images of campus. It was crazy. The publisher once found me curled up under a table, sleeping in the office after struggling to make deadlines.

10,000 hours of photography later (at least) I was amazed how much easier it was. I was seeing moments left and right – even pictures I could have made 25 years ago but didn’t. My productivity, as measured in volume and creativity, was maybe 10 times that of my days as a student. I shake my head at the reality of the time spent away from my studies and friends.

What did I realize that my experience brought…?

• Improved cost-benefit analysis – I knew not to waste my time with pictures that wouldn’t yield the most impact. With experience, you have a sense of the best picture that can be achieved by chasing down a bunny trail, and the cost of doing so. There’s only so much quality light you have to work with, and only so much time to wait for a situation to ripen into a fruitful photograph. You know when tremendous patience is warranted, and when tremendous impatience is warranted.

• Accumulated visual memory – Partly what your cost-benefit analysis is based on is your memory of your pictures in similar situations, but also your memory of pictures taken by others. If there are some factors coming into play that you recognize as being rare and unusual, you’re quicker to jump on them to come closer to images that you have been inspired by or found before. With more visual memory, comes more visual inspiration and more excitement to share.

• Techniques – If you want to read about how to get blood from a turnip, read my post about How to Make a Boring Situation Interesting. I toggle through the various options in my mind to make the most in front of me. The more you practice them, the faster you get.

• Problem-solving – If you’re the kind of person who gives up easily, gets flustered, or has a propensity for powerlessness, I can’t imagine you’ll do well in photography. Photography is all about problem-solving, with all the technical, logistical and interpersonal barriers that throw themselves your way. Even if you text someone desperately with more experience, “HOW SHOULD I SOLVE THIS?” they won’t be able to tell you. You have to find ways to deal with issues that are consistent with your own make-up and resources, which no one can tell you how to do.

• Previsualization – Previsualization isn’t just a one-and-done thing that happens before a shoot. It also happens during your shoot, where you are spotting changing circumstances and previsualizing (with cost-analysis and accumulated memory) where the next best shot will be. Generally, the more you practice this, the better you get. Otherwise, you can end up chasing your tail, missing moments that could have happened because you weren’t prepared for them when they sailed by you.

• Mistake avoidance – When you drive down a road many times, you know where the potholes are, where the kids randomly cross the street, where the red light cameras are and where the birds love to dive-bomb cars.  It’s the same as a photographer. With painful mistakes comes mistake avoidance. You know what catastrophic issues can arise, and you prepare for them – humbled by experience. It sometimes takes the pain of a mistake you’ve outlived to avoid repeating.

• Maturity – One of the things I’ve observed is that you get better access to situations when people trust you and learn to let you do your thing. Generally, people watch you and the decisions you make, and make judgments about your ability and skills. They watch how you cope with disappointment and with exertions of power that come to your expense. It’s just the way it is. With more experience comes more maturity (well, ideally) and people respond to that. You’re worth their time and investment, and doors can open with that trust.

All this is why why many professional photographers are counseled not to charge per hour, but per a creative fee. Your efficiency and productivity can’t be measured by time. It’s measured by your creative output, which significantly increases with experience. How can you compare hourly rates among photographers of vastly different experience and talent?

All the experience that photographers gather through their work is incremental, such that you may not even realize it.

Yet it’s very real, and translates into substantial value for those who invest in it.