Cuba’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

by Ray Pfortner

My first experience with the World Trade and Exchanges, Inc. (WTE) was a trip to China in September 2014, which I co-led with my photo stylist wife Nancy Wing. WTE specializes in connecting artists and art organizations, and that program focused on photographing UNESCO World Heritage sites and meeting with China’s stock photo agencies, nature photographers and gallery curators. It was a wonderful experience for us, and the resulting mixed-media show hung in classical Chinese gardens in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, throughout 2015.

A view, at dusk, of the Havana waterfront—El Malecon—taken from the seat of a Coco taxi or tuk tuk. Paint is used heavily to brighten and enliven the buildings. © Nancy Wing

A view, at dusk, of the Havana waterfront—El Malecon—taken from the seat of a Coco taxi or tuk tuk. Paint is used heavily to brighten and enliven the buildings. © Nancy Wing

When WTE asked us to lead a second artist exchange, this time to Cuba, there was no hesitation. I spent a great deal of time in the Caribbean when I worked for the United States’ Superfund program more than 20 years ago. I loved the Caribbean, especially Puerto Rico, where I met many Cubans who recalled the island they missed so much.

Unlike regular tours, WTE’s focus is on people-to-people programs. Consequently, a WTE exchange satisfies the Office of Foreign Assets Control general license requirements without the retooling most programs have had to do. (OFAC is the U.S. agency charged with overseeing travel to Cuba.)

The first of three exchanges took place this past May. The objective was to focus on UNESCO sites as we did in China. We photographed three of the nine established UNESCO sites (Old Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad) plus another that is on a proposed list of three—Instituto Superior del Arte, the national arts institute.

Our exchange included 16 photographers from the Northwest, Arizona and Texas. We made well over 100,000 images: architecture; transportation (including three-wheeled Coco taxis and the pinkest, purple-est and bluest 1950s vintage cars imaginable); wildlife—like the trogan (also called the tocororo), Cuba’s national bird; organic farms; performances; and, of course, the people.

Three young dancers from a performing arts boarding school put on a show for our team. © Ray Pfortner

Three young dancers from a performing arts boarding school put on a show for our team. © Ray Pfortner

The people were the most amazing part of Cuba, from Havana’s waterfront, El Malecon to the lodge deep in the mountains above Trinidad; from people on the street to the young dancers in a public boarding school for the performing arts. One day we asked for an unplanned stop in a tiny town in southern Cuba to mingle and photograph the residents. We were most likely the first group of Americans that town had seen since the revolution. We were an instant sensation as were the photographs we made—for us and for the Cuban people.

Our team photographed hundreds of people during the exchange. Only a few said “No, thank you.” Another few, called “dandies,” asked for money (U.S.$1) for a photograph, because they are licensed by the government as entrepreneurs. Fair enough; we all liked the arrangement. In Cuba we made some intimate portraits, sharing the results with our subjects, and leaving instant prints with them as a token of our appreciation.

Havana, Cuba May 2016

Cubans take pride in their vintage cars painted amazing colors. To our surprise, these cars are common in the traffic of Havana and other Cuban cities. © Karen Wilkison

The Cuban people welcomed us with open arms and wide smiles and, of course, a little curiosity, too. We were surprised and impressed by their complete lack of animosity towards us as Americans. We often entered into discussions with taxi drivers, waitresses, vendors, other photographers and people on the street. Repeating themes included the embargo (the real problem on the minds of most Cubans); the joint fate of our two countries as Cuba’s leaders age with no signs of grooming a new generation; and who might be the next president of the United States.

Impressive was the broad support for the arts and the abilities of Cuban artists of all ages. This support runs from Fidel Castro all through Cuban society, and it appears to be much stronger and more widespread than we see in the States.

Since our return, all of the trip participants have often been asked if the Cuban people seem happy. The music and dancing at every hour and around every corner gives an optimistic feeling wherever you go. Education is ubiquitous. Free medical care is readily available to all Cubans. Organic and locally-sourced foods have been abundant in Cuba long before the United States could make that claim.

Unfortunately, wages and job opportunities outside those licensed for the new tourism boom are limited. Free education, medical care and food supplements offset the low wages, but there is a sense of just playing the hand you are dealt—not so easy for such spirited people.

As with the China exchange, we have mounted a traveling show of our Cuban photographs—45 images in all—that will travel for the rest of this year. The show started in July with material less than two-months old. Openings and presentations will occur at many of the venues.

Topes de Collantes, Cuba May 2016 RayPfortner.com

The WTE exchange photographers set off on a hike in southern Cuba to photograph the rich natural history, especially Cuba’s national bird (the trogan), caves and several waterfalls. © Ray Pfortner

As WTE co-leaders, Nancy and I will return to Cuba with WTE two more times:

  1. December 9-18, 2016, with the goal of photographing more of the island’s UNESCO sites.
  2. In 2017 to photograph the eastern, wilder end of Cuba, with two UNESCO biosphere reserves that are Cuban national parks rich with endemic species. We will also cover another UNESCO cultural site.

We plan to turn the results of all three exchanges into a published book of our images, documenting the nature and the culture of Cuba before and during the latest transformation that is sweeping the island as it re-opens to the United States.

For information on the next WTE artist exchange to Cuba, in December 2016, go to: https://wte-usa.com/photograph-cuba.


Ray Pfortner has worked in photography as an educator, stock photography agent, photo editor, consultant and photographer for more than 25 years. He is a NANPA Fellow (2004) and received its Mission Award (formerly called the NANPA Recognition Award) in 2006. He also received the Jane and Russ Kinne Recognition Grant in 2006. Ray teaches throughout the Northwest, from colleges to art supply stores. His topics include how to design compelling photographs and the business of all art mediums. Ray’s photography focuses on nature and environmental issues and is often used to support conservation. He is represented by Getty Images.