By Michael Reynolds
Visiting Cuba to photograph the trip of U.S. President Barack Obama was both a remarkable experience and a highlight of my career in photojournalism. The images from the trip were not necessarily the most fabulous, but being there and watching the first sitting U.S. President to visit Cuba in eighty-eight years was something I will never forget.
The White House had chartered the flight that took off from Joint Base Andrews during the late afternoon of Saturday, March 19th – the day before President Obama would depart aboard Air Force One from the same location. The plane was packed full with more than sixty passengers from various news organizations.
Following an uneventful flight we arrived in the skies above Havana, only to be placed in a holding pattern. We were informed that the Havana airport was closed and we would continue to hold for up to an additional thirty minutes before making a decision regarding our fuel. Fortunately our plane was permitted to land soon after. Later I learned that we were held up due to the visit of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro who had come to Havana to shore up support on the eve of Obama’s visit.
Looking through the window as we came in for the landing I could see in the day’s fading light that although the city’s buildings had an air of decrepit age about them, many were painted in bright colors. The streets were dotted with cars seemingly lifted straight out of the 50’s. At once I could tell that this would prove to be an extremely photogenic place. That evening I had free time to stroll around Old Havana and take in a meal before working.
The first working day, Sunday 20th March, I photographed the arrival of President Obama and the First Family at Jose Marti International Airport. It seemed as though the moment that the stairs were wheeled up to Air Force One and the doors opened that it began to rain. Colleagues in Havana that later covered the walking tour were completely drenched.
The following morning, I opted to skip the President’s participation in a wreath-laying ceremony at Monumento Jose Marti – the memorial of the Cuban national hero, in order to photograph Obama greeting President Raul Castro and shaking hands for the first time on this trip after which there would be the official welcome ceremony.
Several of us in the traveling White House Press Corps waited for these events in a room of the Palace of the Revolution. Coffee was offered and I helped myself to the most delicious espresso I’ve ever tasted. Four times.
Obama’s arrival saw half a dozen of us rush into the room and capture the scene as President Castro and President Obama walked toward one another from across a florescent-lit room lined with plants to shake hands. What I thought would be the defining picture – the instant before their outstretched hands touched – was blocked by a translator who lacked the presence of mind not to walk between the principals and the photographers at that very moment. Fortunately, the translator soon moved and we were able to do our jobs.
At that moment it struck me how fortunate I was to be photographing this historical happening. The word “historical” is often overused and too quickly. During my career there have been events I have covered that were later regarded to be historical. This was one of the few moments that I absolutely knew was historical right then and there.
Following the meeting, the half-dozen or-so of us rushed into the room adjacent where the welcome ceremony took place so as to not miss any important pictures. Obama and Castro reviewed a Cuban military band.
The last day, Tuesday 22nd March, was to be the highlight of the trip, with Obama addressing the Cuban people at the Great Theatre of Havana before he and President Castro watched a Major League Baseball exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, at the Latin American Stadium. At the Great Theatre of Havana, President Castro was greeted by a standing ovation before taking his seat to listen to Obama’s publicly broadcast speech.
Coverage of the much anticipated baseball game was the most challenging of the trip. Simply entering the Latin American Stadium was difficult, to say the least, and required pushing through a crushing mass of people that were all entering at the same time. It was a potentially dangerous situation. After much effort, myself and a dozen other photographers photographed the arrival of President Obama and President Castro from a position on the field, near home plate and through the safety net. After they took their seats we all relocated off of the field.
After the game had begun the only real vantage point to see Obama and Castro, who were both seated in the first row, was to climb on top of chairs that were already occupied. Photographers squeezed on top of each other and around one another. People with cell phones attempted to take pictures beside photographers with 400mm lenses. It wasn’t pretty or dignified by any means, but not wanting to risk losing a shot I had no choice but to stand on top of a seat that was being used by a woman who had no view other than that of photographers and camera operators standing above her.
Later in the day, after Obama had left Havana, the town seemed to swell in size. I had heard a local person say that many people had avoided Old Havana during the President’s visit. Shortly before leaving Cuba, I gave a cab driver ten CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) and asked him to take me on a stroll. He said he thought it was good that Obama visited Cuba and that things are going to get better here.