When NPR photographer David Gilkey was headed off to Cuba to shoot some of our stories, I told him, as his photo editor, that there was one cliché he should absolutely avoid: cars.
He talked about it with weekend host Scott Simon (which you can listen to above). Our conversation was a little different.
Kainaz: So David, we sent you to Cuba with one very specific directive: No cars. (Well, that and cigars.) Remember?
David: Yes, I remember us doing a Google search of "Havana" and seeing nothing but vintage Fords and Chevys from the '40s and '50s. We laughed because it was absurd.
Kainaz: Yes, and I said, under absolutely no circumstances, no matter what, were you to photograph cars. Verboten. Don't even think about it. Don't even look at them! It's like shooting gondolas in Venice. SERIOUSLY, NO CARS. So what happened when you got there?
David: Here's the thing: Cuba's cars are impossible to ignore. It's like seeing a celebrity and trying not to stare. They run through the streets, not so quietly, in bright colors, carrying sometimes half a dozen Cubans from place to place. Maybe you aren't a car lover. Maybe you love bikes. Imagine showing up in a city and almost everybody is riding vintage Schwinns.
Kainaz: For non-car geeks, though, what's so great about them?
David: These cars aren't just a tourist attraction. They say something about who Cubans are at their core, their ingenuity and craftsmanship, and their will to carry on no matter what. Our visit was sprinkled with little clues of this. You go into someone's house, and the fan has lost its plastic frame, but they still make it function. A mother tells you how much monthly salary she makes, and somehow she makes that stretch to feed her family. Nothing is thrown away, everything is rejiggered to function.
For Cubans, cars are a matter of necessity. It's not just about looking good (which they do). It's about function. I call them "Frankencars." The original motors are sometimes replaced with Mercedes Diesel engines, or the interiors are stripped and reupholstered over and over again. The hubcaps and wheels are handmade. They are fixed on the street among neighbors and friends.
Kainaz: I get that. I loved my Honda Civic, whose name was Miles, and I only had him for five years.
David: Seriously. Cars in Cuba are rarely sold. They are handed down like family heirlooms.
But, as beautiful as a 1956 Chevy is, nobody wants to be stuck in 1956 forever. If you've been following our reporting, it seems like some economic reforms might bring some upgrades — albeit slowly and with bumps. Kinda like a Cuban car.
Kainaz: Dare I ask ... which is your favorite photo and why?
David: The wiener dog crossing the street in front of the car! I don't know why, but the dog somehow goes perfectly with the car.
Kainaz: Thanks, David. And thank you for not photographing any cigars. You didn't, right?
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
An NPR team just returned from a week of reporting in Cuba. They went to listen to Cubans, fisherman, business owners, sugar mill workers, as well as government officials and dissidents. A repressive government headed by a Castro is still in power.
But after more than 50 years, there are some signs of change. Cubans can now buy property and start businesses. Tourism workers can earn tips well beyond what they'd make in government jobs.
The reporting team, included Morning Edition host David Greene and NPR photographer David Gilkey. Davids, thanks both very much for being with us.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: It's good to be here, Scott.
DAVID GILKEY, BYLINE: Yeah, you're welcome.
SIMON: Well, explain, David Greene - you're at WLRN in Miami. And, David Gilkey, you're with our friends at OPB in Portland, right?
SIMON: Gentleman, before you left, there was one subject you were told absolutely, positively, under no circumstances go into because it's already been done more times than stories about rodeo clowns on NPR.
GREENE: That's right. The cars, Scott. It was the cars, the old Fords and Oldsmobiles, that are on the streets of Havana. I mean, they are the American cars that were allowed in before the embargo, and so those are the American cars that are left.
And people fix them up, and they're still driving them. We were told it is so cliche. David, you and I talked about this. Everyone told us just not to pay attention to them.
SIMON: So I go on our website today, and there's a wonderful photo essay - npr.org - about old cars. So defend yourself.
GREENE: I think we have a moment on tape that might actually defend it for you and give you a sense.
I'm sitting in central Havana outside the Capitol building with NPR photographer David Gilkey. And, David, we should say we were warned before coming down here that these old 1950s American cars were a little bit cliche in Havana.
GILKEY: A little bit. But I'm looking at a row of 1940s and '50s cars. They are just so beautiful. You look over and there's a 1956 Chevy. You can't not turn your camera towards these cars.
SIMON: David Gilkey, it sounds like you're under a spell.
GILKEY: A little bit.
SIMON: I mean, maybe we should explain, repertoirely, it's very difficult to own a private automobile in Cuba.
GREENE: You need permission from the government to own any car for a long time. And now, you know, those rules are loosening up. But they're still incredibly expensive. And, you know, there's a market to fix up these cars.
GILKEY: They're hobbled and cobbled together to make a working automobile. The outside, as attractive as it might be, sometimes the inside is, and other times it's just a raw metal mass with plastic seats.
SIMON: What are some of the other stories and images that stuck with you from Havana?
GILKEY: It was the people. One of the things that we saw when we were in Cuba was people live in very tight, confined spaces. So one of the places that you can have a little bit of freedom is on the streets. And that could be running around in the cars or it can be just standing around.
So the idea with the pictures was to sort of show them having a little bit of space. And you can find that space on the street.
SIMON: David Greene?
GREENE: Yeah, Scott. David and I talked about that when, you know, when we were walking down the Malecon, that long promenade right along the water in Havana. It's one thing I saw when I was, you know, working for NPR in Russia, Scott.
I mean, it was just that there are such cramped quarters. This goes back through Soviet times. And people just cramped space, looking for moments to be able to feel free and talk. And a lot of times it was those parks.
And we met one young man. He's 38 years old. He's a young socialist in Havana, and he really wants to talk about the future of his country. And he has trouble finding the space to do it because he's always followed by security people, you know, trying to listen to what he's talking about. He brought us to this very quiet park hoping it was a space where we be could be open and have a conversation. So, you know, just kind of visually, in Havana, while looking at David's photos, they really help to tell the story of the place.
SIMON: Gentleman, thank you. Morning Edition host David Greene in Miami. Thank you very much.
GREENE: Pleasure being here, Scott.
SIMON: And NPR photographer David Gilkey in Oregon.
GILKEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.