Motivated by Curiosity, Understanding & a Friend


The previous post about my Cuba Photo Essay explained my shallow knowledge of this nation. In this post I explain how curiosity blended with extraneous experiences, including becoming friends with Mark Zannoni, evolved into a motivation to explore & understand a culture, which is rich in character.

Snippets I read about Cuba revolved around Spain, galleons & the slave trade. It was a cursory foundation of historical knowledge. Their path of independence seemed irrelevant. Roosevelt’s involvement in the Spanish American War veered my attention towards US involvement in other parts of the world.

Growing up in the 60’s I knew Cuba was a communist country & Fidel Castro lead the revolution. With a teenager’s perspective, I knew Cubans risked prison, torture or even death. Freedoms of speech, like those protesting in the US, were not allowed in their country. Because of where I was born, my life was much freer. I couldn’t grasp life under communist rule but yet I was curious about the lives of people on this tropical island.

I had empathy for anybody risking their lives on overcrowded boats to escape tyranny & admired the courage to liberate their lives. Leaving family, homeland & your culture is a hard decision. To risk death is an entirely higher level of determination.

In 1986 I peaked behind the Iron Curtain in Moscow during the Goodwill Games. In many ways my eyes were opened. I learned “Evil Empire” didn’t apply to everyday people. I could tell from the demeanor, posture & expressions of Soviets they had little joy in their lives. I questioned if I had the durability to survive in their society. I recognized that even with hardships in the Soviet Union, it was their home & had been for generations. I wondered if tenacity fueled a pride in their culture & heritage.

After the Berlin Wall came down Communism in Europe was collapsing. Cuba depended on the USSR for 30 years & totalitarian control in Cuba was sure to fall like other Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. But that didn’t happen. Why? From my time in Moscow I knew people living under Communism needed strength. This tenacity must also be part of Cuban society. Had hardships evolved into a determination for survival?

Compassion is one thing but I still lacked understanding.

From the perspective of a Freelancer I appreciated opportunities Cubans couldn’t even dream about. My career allowed me chances to work in a medium built on the foundation of Free-Speech, I worked Independently with clients, & truth be told…cameras & TV equipment are fun tools to make a living with & I enjoyed my trade.

In the 90’s I became friends with Mark Zannoni, a fellow freelancer transplanted from Chicago to Southern Florida. I remember him translating at a restaurant in FTL. Since I’m ignorant in any language except English, I was curious how a kid from Chicago named Zannoni knew Spanish.   He told me his mom escaped from Cuba & he learned it from her. I now had a connection to Cuba.

Over the years I picked up bits of information from him. As with many of Mark’s opinions, he was adamant about complete change of government in his mother’s native land. When he told me an Uncle was part of the Bay of Pigs Invasion I began to understand his emotions. It was personal to him. A perspective I lacked but respected.

In 2008, when Fidel handed over power to his brother Raul I asked Z if he would consider visiting Cuba. As I mentioned, he was adamant…”No! Raul is even more vicious than his brother.” They both must go before he would ever visit his mother’s place of birth. The reality of government oppression was close to him & many others. The community of expat Cubans was a generational stew of emotions.

So all of these things were percolating in my mind. As I approached retirement I wanted to reward myself with a trip. I also knew I wanted to rekindle my enthusiasm for photography. The drastically different way of life in Cuba along with the US’s evolving relationship was the chance to do both.

I want to see & experience to better understand the culture of the people in Cuba.

Just before retirement at Super Bowl 50 I was playing dominoes with Mark. He is the kind of friend you can have a good disagreement with & remain close. I explained my plan of a Photo Essay. His questions revolved around “Your just one person. You can’t change things.” My response was “I want to experience the people & the culture”. He felt I was supporting the Castro’s but was interested in learning about my trip. I don’t know if our conversation distracted him but I won 5 games of dominoes to his none.

In October of last year, at 49 years of age Mark Zannoni passed away. I miss him & grieve for his family & many friends. I’m sure that throughout my trip he will be in my thoughts. Z’s spirit for life motivates me to capture the soul of the Cuban people.