Faces That Launched 1,000 Shots

SOME of my friendships are made in an instant.

My camera bonds us. We are two strangers linked by a smile and the click of a shutter. Maybe no words are spoken. Maybe the smile and nod are our only communication. But they are enough.

I pick my friends carefully. As I travel around a country, I search for the faces I will keep, the faces that become the soul of that country, and I gingerly transport them home. They wait in my film and come back to life on my light table. Then I can share the faces of my friends with anyone who will have a look.

The people of some countries love to be photographed. Cubans are like that: warm and friendly.

Two little girls with smiling faces and wiggling like puppies are tickled to have a tall foreigner show interest. They run off giggling and yell: "Mom! Guess what! Mom!"

An old woman stands in her doorway with the story of her life sketched onto her face. "You don't want my picture. I'm too old. I'm too ugly." But there is a schoolgirl smile. She is beautiful, maybe more now than ever before.

The old men stand chatting in a tight circle as I approach them and shyly ask if I can take their photo. "Of course."

I shoot the group, but one among them stands out, and I concentrate on him: his wonderful straw hat pulled low over his eyes, his mischievous toothless grin, and his embarrassment at being singled out. He will probably be ribbed by his buddies after I walk on.

My teenage friends are more nonchalant; they are not as obvious about their pleasure in being chosen.

A girl, almost a woman, sits on Havana's sea wall with her puppy. A wisp of her hair blows in the wind. She endures me for an eternity of several minutes and half a roll of film.

I don't know their names. I rush in and out of their lives, taking their images to keep. Sometimes when I review the film, a face will appear that I don't remember. Where did I meet you? Where did I capture you, and why can't I remember?

But other faces I can never forget.

Osvaldo approached me with a smile while I was ridiculously photographing an old car in Havana.

"What are you doing?" he asked. Then a barrage of questions followed while I fumbled with my Spanish.

Osvaldo and I met several times during my 10-day stay in Castro's tired country. Many Cubans approached me on the streets with a sense of desperation: "Change money?" "Buy me something in the dollar store." "Give me money." "Buy me a soda." "Give me something material to help me endure since you are so rich and I so poor."

Osvaldo only wanted my friendship. We would walk around his crumbling city for hours. Sometimes he would pose for me, but usually we just walked as I photographed. I met his grandmother and saw their home: a tiny room, which served as kitchen, living room, and dining room, with a sleeping loft above it. Other tiny rooms in the same building held more of their family, a family rich in the things you cannot buy.

I met another friend in a small country town called Remedios. I had been wandering around the central plaza for quite a while taking pictures.

Rodolfo, a streetsweeper, had been watching.

Tentatively, he approached me and touched his ears and mouth and shook his hand. He could not hear or talk, but his gestures spoke for him, and sometimes he wrote on a crumpled piece of paper when his hands failed to communicate.

He became more bold as he found me a patient listener.

Soon he was a mime, copying my every gesture. With a hilarious look on his face, he repeatedly acted out my long nose and long hair and the squatting stance I often take when photographing a person shorter than I am. Then he impersonated the reporter accompanying me: cat eyes with a regal stance and serious gaze. Each time his impersonations captured our essence and made us laugh.

For four hours as we waited for an interview with the local priest, Rodolfo kept us entertained. His startled neighbors wondered why foreigners would pay so much attention to a man like this.

We exchanged tiny photos as we prepared to leave. Rodolfo acted out me flying far away and him staying in Remedios, sweeping streets. He pulled out my photo and ran his finger down from his eyes like tears.

He held my hand through the car-door window until the last minute. When we drove off, he just stood there, holding his heart.

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