In February and March 1999, award-winning Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr. traveled to Havana to capture images of life in Cuba under the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. After news broke this week that the U.S. will resume full diplomatic relations with Cuba, Iooss revisited the incredible photo series for The Players’ Tribune.
I went down to Havana on a press visa to do this photo series for Sports Illustrated to show the children of Cuba playing sports. I had someone from the Cuban government with me at all times. It’s a very sad place in many ways. The people have nothing. They don’t have any food. When you go into the pharmacies, there’s no medicine on the shelves. They have their family and their sports, that’s it.
The first thing you notice when you land is that you are in a police state. The cops are everywhere. They were always watching everything we did. Some people were given a ticket just for talking to our crew one day. A $15 ticket — that was a month’s salary in Cuba.
We were at this track just outside of Havana for about three hours. The runners were drinking water from one old tennis ball can. That’s what maybe 50 people shared in the heat for three hours.
This picture is probably the most famous in the series. It was taken on a corner in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana). One of the images I really wanted to replicate was an old Willie Mays picture from when he was with the New York Giants. Willie used to go play stick ball in the streets of the Bronx. This was the last day of our trip. We were weaving through the streets in the car, looking for stick ball. We came upon this group of kids on the corner. I knew the Polaroid camera that I had been using would bring too much attention and ruin the shot, so I shot literally 25 frames of film. Nothing in that shot was arranged. They don’t even have proper baseballs. The ball was made of tape. And yet in the millisecond when the ball is delivered, look at all these kids, and even the dog, with their eyes fixed on the pitch like it’s the only thing in the world. Nothing else matters. To me, that’s sports in one single frame.
About 10 years later, a friend who owns a gallery in Washington, D.C. went down to Cuba for an exhibition. So he gets in the cab and he shows the driver the picture. He says, “Do you know where this is?” And the driver says, “Yeah, of course. I know all those people. They’re probably all still there.” He found all of them. They were still living right there, 10 years later. In Cuba, no one leaves.
This was at a Saturday afternoon fight at Kid Chocolate’s Gym in Havana. This image was so striking to me because the coach’s hands are huge compared to the kid’s head.
It took four weeks before someone from the government finally allowed us to shoot this pool. It was two minutes from our hotel, right by the ocean. When I walked in I thought, My God, look at that blue water. Five minutes later, I shot this photo. It was like a gift from the Photo Gods.
Look at the stick ball bat. It looks like a two-by-four. It’s just 15 years ago, but it looks like it’s 50. Same clothes, same cars, same dilapidated buildings.
When you have nothing, you live in the moment. In most of the world now, we live with a cell phone in our hand. You’re thinking about capturing the moment and sharing it with 30,000 people. You’re not really in it. In Cuba, life is smaller, more immediate. It’s a different world.
Volleyball wasn’t nearly as popular as baseball, boxing and track and field. But in a way, everything was sort of popular compared to other countries. They have schools like they used to have in East Germany where they take these kids and train them in one sport their whole life.
One thing I noticed when I watched kids play ball was that their form was impeccable. It’s so ingrained. For not being able to watch MLB on TV, everyone seemed to have such a high level of knowledge of the fundamentals. You can bet the Major League Baseball is foaming at the mouth to establish a relationship now. If you can have an NFL team in London, why not have a baseball team in Cuba?
These are probably some of the most remarkable images I’ve ever taken. The colors, the light, the backgrounds … you just cannot take a bad photo in Cuba. If you want to look like a good photographer, spend a week in Havana.