Habana vieja street photography travel cuba havana bike taxi bicitaxi

I feel lucky to have found someone actively repairing a bicitaxi, but it never would have happened if I hadn’t spent 100+ hours walking around Habana Vieja.

In photography, people often dismiss great shots by attributing them to luck or other outside factors. That person just happened to be there at the right time, they have nicer equipment, that shot is easier because the subject itself is so interesting, colorful or rare.  But as Andrea, one of my favorite photography professors, reminds me, photographers make their own luck. Yes, that may be a lucky shot, but you’re not seeing all the other shots that didn’t work out.  You don’t see how many hours they waited in that location for something good to happen in that frame, how much research they did to find the right location, or how much time they invested getting their subjects to trust them and feel comfortable.   You’re also not seeing how much time they spend practicing being creative and getting to know their own equipment, so when the time comes they can see something more interesting than what everyone else is seeing, and capture the image quickly.

Spit trinidad cuba little girl travel street photography

Capturing a little girl in the act of hocking a loogie seems lucky and statistically rare, but the important thing to remember about this image is that I took it when the group was back at the all-inclusive resort, too busy with sun and booze to go out shooting. If you’re not shooting, the likelihood of taking a good image is 0%.

During my two summers in Cuba as a TA to Northeastern University’s photography program, the students with the best collection of images were the ones who created their own luck. They went back to the same locations over and over again, getting to know people and becoming an accepted presence in their midst as opposed to an intruder existing outside the action. They learned the necessary background information to find the potential for great shots, and learned when the variables could possibly line up.  Eventually, this hard work paid off with gorgeous, insightful, authentic views of their subjects in their own environs. Like a musician or actor who is an “overnight success,” luck is just a downplayed misnomer for the reality of their success: hard work and patience.

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I got this image because I chose to march in Havana Pride, not to view it from the sidelines. If you get in the middle of the action, you’re way more likely to come across something amazing. Plus, it’s more fun.

In travel we have a similar opportunity to make our own luck. It’s why I got the large passport, the ten year, multiple-entry visa instead of the single-use one. It’s why I go to travel meet-ups, and include my travel as part of my professional image.  It takes a million small decisions of setting yourself up for success, going the extra mile, and keeping an eye out for opportunity disguised as risk to make your luck.  Of course, not everyone has the privilege to take advantage of these opportunities, and that is nothing to sneeze at.  Nor is it due to any negligence or shortcoming on their part.  I feel strongly about making travel more accessible for all, as well as publicizing cost-effective opportunities.  When I talk about people who don’t make their own luck, I do not refer to people without a realistic ability to take advantage of opportunities.  Rather, I’m speaking about people with the ability to take advantage of opportunities (which other people would kill for)  who choose not to go for it because they’re too tired, it’s too much work, it’s too far out of their comfort zone or they’re too easily distracted.  I’m speaking about people who haven’t prioritized an attainable goal they say they want, and then are surprised when they don’t reach it.

Dominoes Cuba havana cigarette

The way I was able to get this close was that I hung out with these guys for 45 minutes or so, chatting in Spanish, after spending time in the youth center outside of which they were sitting. I only did that because I decided to follow an older couple when they offered to show me the place, which only happened because I actually talk to my subjects in the first place.

People say I’m lucky to have gone to Cuba three times, twice in a work capacity. But those opportunities never would have existed if I didn’t put in the hard work of applying and then making it through the three month Cuba program I did in 2010.  I took a risk of being homesick, unhappy, missing out on everything back home, and losing a precarious relationship in order to go on what I knew would be a strange and challenging adventure.  I didn’t know yet all the ways it could pay off, but that hard work and risk is still making me “lucky” to this day.  I didn’t plan for employers to google me or to win a contest, but since 2009 I’ve been writing online, putting in the time and effort.  I’ve been told I was lucky to win a spot on the Kerala Blog Express, but most of the people who say that could never have even entered the contest, because they have never put in the work of writing a blog and cultivating an online presence. That’s not a bad thing, but the difference between me and the people who didn’t win isn’t just luck, it’s years of hard work.

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The only reason I knew there was a Gay Pride Parade happening down the street is that my roommate got up early, saw it, and knew I would want to be there. The lesson from this, other than to shoot and travel with cool people, is that your network not only needs to be strong, but they need to know what you’re looking for. I send him every sports-related tip I can, and in return he bullied me into getting my ass out of bed for an amazing event. Good deal.

Another huge difference is a willingness to take risks.  Most of he people I know who are jealous of my Cuba trips wouldn’t have the guts to go if they were presented with the opportunity, never mind the guts to go on a longer trip when it was an unproven, unknown quantity.  Many people would never have entered a contest because it seemed sketchy or too good to be true.  They wouldn’t have lobbied their contacts for votes, and they wouldn’t have committed to buying a plane ticket to the other side of the planet, still a little unsure if it was all a scam.

If we consistently work hard, take risks and set ourselves up to be able to take advantage of opportunities, we’ll find ourselves stumbling into a whole lot of luck.  So get up early, pound the pavement, separate yourself from the crowd of long lenses, talk to some strangers, and make your luck happen.

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