Réhahn returns to Cuba every year to meet old friends and make new ones, smoke cigars in the famous La Casa del Habano and take photos of Cuba’s coolest characters. These are some of the stories of the people behind the photographer’s most famous portraits as well as a travelogue about one of the places in the world that is the dearest to Réhahn’s heart.
Cuba in Photos
In Havana, the present seems to rush right through the middle of history. Amongst the 1950s Chryslers and icons of communism from times past there is the pulsing energy of forward motion.
Kennedy and Castro. Classic Cars and Cohibas. Cigar smoke swirling lazily out of cafes, scenting the air with their odor of burnt coffee.
Over there, I spot an old propaganda poster plastered to a crumbling pink facade—Che’s iconic face staring out as if glaring at the beach resort advertisements on the building across the street.
This is Cuba as I see it from the back of my new friend Edel’s car as we cruise down the boulevards past the old buildings and kids playing football in the streets to get out of town. A few beats of Son de la Ma Teodora escape from a doorway as we pass and I take it all in for the first time.
The Spirit of Cuba – Portraits of
I first traveled to Cuba in 2007 because I was drawn to learn more about the history of this country that was on the brink of entering into a new era. Edel happened to show up when I called for an English speaking driver at my hotel. Jovial, philosophical and knowledgeable about everything from geopolitics to agriculture, Edel was the perfect traveling companion.
On that first meeting, I asked Edel to take me to the countryside. He was used to tourists asking to be shuttled around to Varadero to see the beautiful beaches. But what I was looking for was something more authentic, a trip outside the tourist zones and into the real Cuba.
Edel turned with a smile and asked if I smoked cigars. At this point, I’d never smoked one in my life but I accepted without hesitation. What better way to experience Cuba than to join in one of its most ancient rituals – sharing a cigar with a new friend.
Edel stepped out of the car and pulled a box of unbranded cigars out of the trunk. They were humble and hand-rolled, made from tobacco grown by local farmers. He taught me how to breathe in the smoke without fully inhaling and, in a way that I would come to know as utterly Cuban, he began to get philosophical as he explained the ritual of smoking to me.
True lovers of cigars don’t smoke them to show off. They smoke them to feel good. Smoking a cigar for a Cuban has the same importance as savoring a glass of Bordeaux wine does for the French.
It’s a rewarding moment at the end of the day, a moment to chill and enjoy the good things in life. The enjoyment is also wrapped up in a feeling of pride for the bounty of their country and their heritage.
I smoked that first cigar, and then later that day I smoked another. The first one was strong enough to make my head spin but by the second I started to get used to the rich intensity of the smoke and to truly enjoy it.
Since that first trip, I’ve been back 15 times to see Edel and the photograph the country. In 2011, I bought him a house so that he could work less and take care of his disintegrating health due to complications with diabetes. We share our stories and cigars, letting the time pass slowly.
Far from the lightheaded feeling of my first hand-rolled cigar, I’ve moved on to Cohibas now, buying boxes to smoke while in Cuba and to bring back to Vietnam. Cohibas are crafted with care and pride. Each cigar goes through approximately 222 stages during the production process before it is ready for distribution. The flavor is part of what draws me to the brand but I also love being a part of the myth that surrounds them.
In 1966, 4 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis was averted, Fidel Castro’s bodyguard offered him an unbranded cigar made with the finest Cuban tobacco. Castro enjoyed the blend so much that he decided to create a limited production for high-level officials and diplomats. He named them Cohiba, which is the Taino name for cigarette. The Tainos were indigenous people from the Caribbean—the first people in the Americas that Christopher Columbus encountered on his famous expedition in 1492.
I don’t smoke Cohibas for their cult status. To me, they are an access point into the culture, a way to interact with people. Every Cuban knows their name and their history, even if they’ve never had the chance to smoke one. This cigar with its iconic yellow label has brought me so many more valuable encounters than I could have ever imagined when I picked one up for the first time.
I met Elva during one of my early morning photographic ventures in Old Habana. She spotted me before I noticed her.
“If you want a picture, you’ll have to give me something,” she said.
I hadn’t been about to take a photo, in fact, my camera wasn’t even in my hands at that moment. But as soon as she spoke I did want to take her portrait. Here was this woman, fierce as fire, daring me to cross her. With her head crowned with a massive wreath of red flowers, she reminded me of what Frida Kahlo might have looked like had she lived into her seventies.
Instead of continuing on my way, I sat down next to her and gestured at her rough, oversized cigar.
“Do you really smoke those things?” I asked. She laughed and told me it was just for tourists. “They like to take pictures of us ladies with huge cigars,” she said. “I can’t afford to smoke every day.”
When I offered her a Cohiba Esplendido she accepted with a grin. We smoked together for more than an hour talking about history and her country.
The next year when I came back to Cuba, I went to visit her. She invited me to her home, which was near La Bodeguita Del Medio, an institution famous for its traditional mojitos. She claimed it had opened the same year she was born. To me, Elva epitomizes the Cuban spirit – tough and no-nonsense on the first encounter but once trust is built the door opens for a lifelong friendship. Unfortunately, she passed away a few years later but every time I open a box of Cohiba Esplendidos I take a moment to think of her and her unforgettable strength.
As a travel portrait photographer, I’ve traveled to more than 35 countries. Interestingly, the more I travel the more I realize that there are links everywhere, human connections that make the world seem like a much smaller place.
I happened to notice Daniel on one of my photographic strolls through a small Cuban town that I was staying in. His pink shirt caught my eye and I liked his style. I caught up with him to ask if he would mind if I took his portrait, and we ended up spending an hour chatting and smoking right there in the street.
At that point, I’d already moved to Hoi An and was surprised to learn that this dapper 85-year-old gentleman had been in Vietnam in 1975. An engineer by trade, Daniel had come to the country for 7 months to build a hotel that was gifted to Vietnam by the Cuban government as a symbol of the country’s victory. The hotel was built in Hanoi and Daniel was at the inauguration with none other than Fidel Castro himself.
Now, I meet up with Daniel every year to give him money from the sale of his portraits. We have dinner, enjoy a few Cohibas and share our stories of Cuba and Vietnam. He confided in me that before he dies, he dreams of visiting Vietnam again. I was touched by his esteem and love for the country and the Vietnamese people.
Cuba has the longest electric train in South America, which runs from the eastern shore of the Havana harbor all the way to Matanzas. I hopped on the train on one trip to see the countryside from a different angle and got off by chance in a tiny town.
There, I saw a gentleman sitting on a bench in front of the perfect green wall and I liked his face. At the time he was smoking cigarettes, so I asked him if he would like to smoke a cigar. “Of course, I’m Cuban,” he responded.
He told me his name was Francisco and introduced his friend Emilio. The three of us smoked together and watched the trains pass by. My portrait of Francisco shows his tough as nails exterior, which didn’t crack the whole time I spent with him. I was sad to learn that he passed away a few years later but his portrait always reminds me of the spirit of the Cuban people.
Taking Time in Cuba
Photographs and Friendship
In the early mornings, when I walk in old Havana just outside of the tourist zones, everything, except for the music that you can sometimes catch a few notes of coming from houses or cafes, seems to go slow in Cuba. Sometimes, it feels as if the time has just stopped.
My time in Cuba is not like my other photographic ventures. I don’t spend 10 hours per day chasing the light and finding subjects. I let the time come as it may. A typical day would be spent waking up around 5 am to shoot when the light comes down through the buildings. I find people walking through the almost empty streets and will keep shooting as the commerce begins to open and people fill the cafes for their morning coffee. Sometimes I head to El Malecón, Cuba’s most famous seaside avenue, around 8 am when the light comes up from behind to photograph the fishermen reeling in their daily catch.
In the evening, El Malecón will become a promenade where lovers walk hand in hand, musicians serenade the passersby and people lounge along the seawall like an extension of their own homes.
La Havana is an open-air museum filled with colors that are faded but still unexpected. The old cars and crumbling balconies create rich backdrops for any subject.
There are entrances to buildings that when I come across them I feel as if I’m entering a secret world. The hundred years of paint layers and old tags each have a story to tell.
After a few good hours of photo taking, I typically go to La Casa del Habano near the Hotel Nacional around 11 am. Sometimes, Edel comes with me and we settle in for long conversations. We choose our cigars from the thousands available in floor to ceiling display cases in the humidor, then sink into the leather couches and take our time to enjoy the ritual of puffing and ashing, puffing and ashing. The light filtered through the smoke is softer, slower as I exhale and enjoy the good life in Cuba.