While Fidel Castro, hardline communism and the missile crisis come to mind when many people think of Cuba, a group of RIT professors and students has a much more benevolent perspective.
After exploring the streets of Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, and much of the rest of the island of more than 11 million people for a week this past spring, RIT professors Dawn Tower DuBois and Denis Defibaugh and 20 College of Imaging Arts and Sciences students in the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences (SPAS) discovered a far different Cuba.
“To me, it is a city and island filled with contrast and contradiction,” says DuBois. “It is an urban landscape that seems to be frozen in time, but it is now being restored and rejuvenated to its original splendor. It’s a country steeped in culture, art and music.”
“From a photographic standpoint, it’s exquisite,” adds Defibaugh. “In Havana, for example, the architecture and urban landscapes are unspoiled by the parking lots, shopping centers and highways we’re accustomed to here.”
For both RIT professors, the trip in March marked their first return to the largest and most varied of the Greater Antilles islands in several years. After taking SPAS students to Cuba from 2001 to 2004, an escalation in tensions between the U.S. government and the Castro administration led to the pulling of all academic licenses for educational trips beginning in 2005.
After the U.S. Treasury Department recently eased travel restrictions to Cuba, RIT’s legal affairs office worked diligently to quickly restore the university’s academic license for travel to the island.
For students Megan Farmer and Elizabeth Stallmeyer, the trip to Cuba was a seminal week in their four years at RIT.
“The people and colors of Havana made photographing there such an amazing experience,” says Farmer ’13 (BFA, photojournalism), a native of Hammondsport, N.Y., who is currently interning with the Lincoln Journal Star in Nebraska. “Getting as far away from the tourist traps as we could became almost a game for us. It was one of the best experiences I ever had.”
“I would recommend this trip to a SPAS student in a heartbeat,” adds Stallmeyer, a Red Bank, N.J., native who also graduated in May with a photojournalism degree and is now assisting photographers in New York City and New Jersey. “It is an amazing experience filled with so much culture and energy.”
While discovering all Cuba has to offer was one of the goals of the experience, according to Defibaugh, students had to satisfy the credit requirements for the course, produce a portfolio of 20 photographs/prints and keep a journal of their experiences. Planned activities were also scheduled so students could meet with the Cuban people and experience the culture as much as possible.
About a month after returning with students last spring, RIT received approval for another travel license—this one to take alumni to Cuba next year under the People to People Ambassador Programs.
“We’ll be on more of a schedule to meet with the people of Cuba, but there will also be plenty of opportunity to take pictures,” says Defibaugh. “Ever since my first trip to the island, I’ve always wanted the opportunity to take alums back there.”
The first alumni trip is scheduled for Jan. 13–20, 2014, and DuBois and Defibaugh are already working with the Alumni Relations office to promote the trip. The plan is to offer the excursion to SPAS graduates first and then open it up next to CIAS and any RIT alumni. A second alumni trip is tentatively scheduled for next April—about a month after students return.
“We feel privileged to be able to open up people’s eyes to the misconceptions about Cuba,” says DuBois. “It’s the safest country I’ve ever been to and you won’t find friendlier people anywhere.”