Stunning photographs from the once-forbidden island

A photographer intrigued by tales of his parents’ long-ago journey to pre-revolutionary Cuba is the author behind our new photography book: Embracing Cuba.

Embracing_Cuba“Motley’s images of Cuba’s people, arts, design, and public life are remarkable.”—Ellen M. Harrington, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

“One can immediately look at Motley’s photographs and feel the spirit of the Cuban people.”—Gil Garcetti, UNESCO-IHE cultural ambassador

“These beautiful photographs bring back many memories of Cuba—my people, my childhood, and so many beautiful moments that passed growing up in my beloved land.”—Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers all-star outfielder

“A work of heart and soul.”—Richard Schweid, author of Che’s Chevrolet, Fidel’s Oldsmobile

“The powerful photographs give wonderful insight into the lives of everyday people on the island with rich colors, abstract and complex scenes, humor, and energy.”—Ilene Perlman, photographer

Award-winning photographer Byron Motley traveled to Cuba more than a decade ago and instantly fell in love. Year after year he has returned with his camera to explore its vistas, its people, and its spirit.

Forgoing the political imagery that has dominated American media, Motley highlights the many ways in which Cubans retain and nourish their zest for life despite the scarcity of every day. Through his vivid photographs, readers discover the real Cuba: its heart-stopping architecture and infectious energy, its cars seemingly teleported from the past, its love of baseball so fierce as to be nearly religious, the joy of community, and the unexpected juxtapositions of life in the last bastion of communism in the Western world.

Even before the easing of travel restrictions, Motley’s personal relationships with key dignitaries provided him with unprecedented access in Havana, allowing him to capture the allure, the mystique, and the vibrant essence of Cuba.

Byron Motley gave us an inside look into the creation of Embracing Cuba, recalling the influences that got him into photography, his favorite photograph in the book, and more:

Motley_Byron-AuthorPhoto2_credit-Jeffrey_Miiller
Credit: Jeffrey Miller

An image can stir an emotion or remind me of particular moment as I snapped.  It is my hope that these images resonate with others as well. “—Byron Motley

How did you first become interested in photography?

I have always been a very visual person. That’s really just another way of saying I’m nosey! From a very young age I was always fascinated by still photography and spent hours in the school library rifling through National Geographic, marveling at the images. This curiosity not only opened my eyes to the world, but more importantly, probably subconsciously inspired my shooting style. I also had an uncle who traveled with Dr. Martin Luther King in the ’60s chronicling his life and work photographically.  Knowing that also piqued my curiosity as to what it must be like behind the lens capturing special moments.

What made you decide that photography was the best way to show Cuba to your readers?

Honestly, it’s the ultimate way for me to connect with my Cuban experiences.  An image can stir an emotion or remind me of particular moment as I snapped.  It is my hope that these images resonate with others as well. Also, there are so many misconceptions about Cuba, especially in the eyes of Americans. So for me, photography is the most logical, creative, and assessable way to reveal to people the Cuba that speaks to me, affects me, moves me, inspires me.

Are there famous photographers or other artists that have inspired you and your work?

I love the work of the Cuban revolutionary photographers Korda, Noval, and Osvaldo and Roberto Salas. To have been in the throes of visually capturing the progression of the Revolution—which is without a doubt one of the most incredible stories of the twentieth century—is in a word, awesome!  Other favorites are: Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Annie Leibovitz, and Vivian Maier because of her recently discovered works.

After so many trips and visits to Cuba over the years, how did you choose these particular photos for the book?

It was very difficult narrowing down roughly 25,000 images (taken over ten years and sixteen visits) into nearly 200 for this book, and it required much ingestion of Havana Club 7-Year Rum. Seriously, it was a long process (along with writing the text) that took 14 months to complete. Working with the publisher to divide the book into themes—like architecture, sports, people—helped in the decision-making process. I tried to present a diverse selection of images that best reflects the Cuba I have grown to love.

Is there a photo you wish you could have taken for this book but you weren’t able to get?

Many! Some missed moments when I wasn’t quick enough with my camera still haunt me! But above all, I would give anything to have captured just one image of Commandante Fidel!

What is your favorite photo in the book?

They are all like my children. I love them all. But, the one that holds the most meaning for me is “Conga Drum, Trinidad, 2007.”  It’s a very simple photo but one that I visualized taking before this particular trip.  When the moment presented itself, almost just as I had seen it in my mind’s eye, I was astonished. Still am!

What aspect of Cuba were you able to capture that you feel is otherwise missed by most media?

Because I have been the only American photographer allowed field access to the Cuban national baseball teams by the government in many years, I am particularly proud and fond of those images.

How will the easing of travel restrictions impact Cubans? How will it impact Americans?

This remains to be seen, but hopefully for Cubans it will be a way for them to culturally influence Americans. It truly is a moment to shine. For Americans it is an opportunity to experience an oft misunderstood world that has been off-limits to most of them for nearly sixty years.

What advice do you have for travelers visiting Cuba for the first time?

Be respectful!

Are you working on any other photography projects? What other locations would you like to photograph?

I have been chronicling both Cuban baseball and the island’s LGBT movement.  Those are passion projects that I will continue to document. As far as other locations, I am intrigued by Morocco, Turkey, and the Aboriginal people of Australia.

What advice do you have for photographers just starting out?

Find your own vision, voice, and style. Shoot whatever you like. And above all, have fun!

Byron Motley is coauthor of Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants, and Stars: True Tales of Breaking Barriers, Umpiring Baseball Legends, and Wild Adventures in the Negro Leagues. His photographs have been published in the Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, Vanity Fair, and the Advocate.

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