Neil Ta on Shooting Cuba with a Hasselblad XPan

Final Cuba (3000)-1
Neil Ta / Cuba, 2015

This is an interview between me and Neil Ta, my good friend (and manager). He’s recently taken his street photography to the next level by shooting exclusively with a Hasselblad Xpan (panoramic film camera), and has taken a few trips to Cuba. See his on-going edit of Cuba, and learn more about him and how he shoots:

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Eric: Hey Neil, great having you. Can you start off with tell us how we got hooked up?

Neil: I know it has been shared a number of times on this blog and at your workshops, but the way we met was like a love story. Haha.

Your partner Cindy and I were born on the same refugee camp in Malaysia – albeit years apart. My old photo blog was called “I am Bidong”– named after the camp. One day Cindy was researching how to get back to the camp and she somehow found my blog.

I ended up visiting the camp a year or so after first contact and from then on we added each other to Facebook to keep in touch. Then randomly one day about four and a half years ago she posts this Eric Kim street photography workshop video on her wall and at the end of it I saw the credits “filmed and edited by Cindy Nguyen”.  I messaged her and said that it was so cool that she knew you and that I was a fan of what you were doing with the street photography community.

She replied by saying “You idiot! He’s my boyfriend!” I guess I didn’t make the connection up until that point.

How did you discover the XPan?

A friend of mine in Toronto named Tyler Hayward had been using the Xpan for a bit but I thought it was a little bit gimmicky. It wasn’t until I was at Gulf Photo Plus in 2014 when I saw how Joe McNally was utilizing this camera when the lightbulbs went on inside my head. I bought the camera about six months after.

What are common misconceptions of Cuba and tell us what drew you there

I knew that Americans viewed Cuba as this mysterious place that was ruled by an evil dictator. Sort of how they’ve completely demonized North Korea. But as a Canadian, Cuba to me was just somewhere people went on vacation. Our governments have good relations and going there is no more exotic than going to Mexico or the Dominican for a beach vacation. With that said, most travellers tend to stick to the resorts and just do day trips into Havana.

My interest in Havana stems from the images made by some of my favorite photographers – Alex Webb, David Alan Harvey, and now Peter Turnley. They’ve all produced memorable images there and I wanted go there to see what all the fuss was about – and to shoot it in my own way.

Cuba is one of those places that has a distinct look because of photographers DAH, Webb, and Turnley. Aside from changing your format (using a Panoramic camera), how do you think photographers should approach often photographed places and how did you approach photographing Cuba?

Honestly, I was trying to shoot a lot like Alex Webb while I was there.  I’m not even gonna lie.

The funny thing about emulating other people’s work is that it’s never really an exact replication since we’re bringing all of our habits and own shooting style into the mix.

The best images I got from Cuba was when I failed at being an Alex Webb but succeeded at being a Neil Ta.

I’m heavily influenced by other genres of photography, so in my Cuba images I think you can see how my architectural work gets thrown into the mix while I try to capture these random moments on the streets. The reason I shoot and explore so many other genres of photography is so that I can cross-pollenate them to produce something that is hopefully unique. That experimentation has been really important has my growth as a photographer. I’m influenced as much from Ed Burtynsky as I am someone like Bruce Davidson or Weegee.

It can be pretty difficult to go to a place like Havana and photograph things in a non-cliché way. The three simple tips I have for those trying to get original photos in an often photographed place are:

  1. Allot time to actually take photos
  2. Go to places that others aren’t going
  3. Go back to places that you find interesting and shoot the heck out of it.

In Havana I shot about 12 hours a day for seven days straight. We tried to roam around and explore areas and neighbourhoods that other tourists weren’t and when we found interesting spots, we would return there two, three, four times.

Was there anything about Cuba or its people that surprised you?

There was a lot that I wasn’t expecting, but there are three things that sort of stuck out.

First, the food rations. I’ve visited a few other communist/socialist countries before but I’ve never seen actual food rations being handed out (save from a refugee camp in Kenya). One day it was bread rations, another day – tubs of lard. One friend Ed Tse started photographing people with eggs on egg ration day.

Second, there is very limited access to different varieties of food and drink. There was one day we needed bottled water and most of the stores we passed by had run out. There aren’t convenient stores there on every corner like in most of the developed world. We were at a large grocery store in a resort area one day and there were aisles of empty shelves. It was pretty crazy. The food there was also pretty bad, which is predictable given their access to quality and variety of ingredients. If I never have that damn Cuban ration ham again it will be too soon.

Lastly, they love sports. Every nook of the city is used as a makeshift baseball diamond or soccer field. I remember running into one Cuban baseball fan who began to recite players on the entire Toronto Blue Jays World Series Championship team from 1993 – by position too. Starting pitchers and everything. It was insane.

How do the Cubans react when they notice a camera is pointed at them, is it similar to North American countries or do they enjoy being in front of the camera? 

Most Cubans were receptive to having their photos taken, which actually presented some problems when you’re trying to capture more candid moments. It was a bit difficult to interact with any sort of depth as my Spanish is non-existent.

I think the one thing North America (and much of the Western world) suffers from is this paranoia of having children photographed. There were never issues that came up in Havana when I photographed kids, and it’s nice to shoot so freely and without perceived limitations.

You have a fair share of haters online, how do you deal with that?

I wouldn’t say I am known enough to have haters, but occasionally when something I write gets re-posted to Petapixel I do get trolled really hard.

The last article I wrote on Feeling Inadequate as a Photographer made me feel really depressed after reading some of the comments, despite getting a lot of supportive comments and emails.

Similarly, after I had denounced my involvement with rooftopping, I received one extremely hateful email that was racist that could categorically be considered a hate crime. I debated whether or not I should write about it and share that hurtful experience but decided against it. I didn’t want to empower this person anymore.

In terms of dealing with it, I just try my best to ignore it – the good and the bad. I may just decide not to read comments going forward.

What is the most fun thing about shooting panoramic and is film really worth it to you?

I find shooting panoramic really difficult and I enjoy the challenge. Traditional ways of composing and layering images are thrown out the window when it comes to panoramas. The compositions seem too linear and things that appear randomly on the edges of the frame can really kill your shot. However, when you nail an image on film (and especially panorama) it really stands out.

For me, I understand that each push of the shutter costs me $1. But if I get one good photo per roll ($20) I think it is worth it.

I shot 36 rolls in Cuba with the XPan and it cost me nearly $700 for the film and to develop the rolls.

I ended up with a 16 photo edit of the images for an eventual long term project and about 100 images usable for Instagram. I don’t think I could have achieved the same shooting digital as my hit rate seems to be much lower with that medium. It was worth it to me to spend that money. That being said, I don’t think film makes any logical sense.

Screw logic though. How can you put a price on your personal enjoyment?

You had told me when you first got back from Cuba that you were disappointed with the images you captured there. Has your mind changed or are you still disappointed with what you photographed in Havana?

Hahaha. When I first started scanning my film, I just wasn’t seeing anything worthwhile. I was expecting to get a bunch of ‘Alex Webbs’. I obviously didn’t get many of those. But over time, I was able to remove myself from the experience and get opinions of others. I now think this is some of my strongest work and I’m excited to move forward with this long term.

How did you edit the images down from the 700 photos down to the final 16 for the project?

It was hard. I got opinions from a bunch of photographer friends which helped narrow it down a little bit. The problem was aside from maybe 5 photos, everyone’s edit was completely different from one another. It is difficult when there is no consensus on what the best photos are. In my mind, I over think things and think to myself that maybe the images just aren’t good enough. That there is no definitive best, just mediocre. This is how my photography mind works.

So how do you counter this over thinking? Do you just go at it and shoot more or it eventually fades away and follow your gut feel?

It’s a big problem for me to be honest. Luckily I have friends who are great photographers and editors. They can set me straight a lot of the time when I feel certain images or projects are weak. Time is also something that is helpful in weeding out the good from the bad. For a few of my projects, I will look at the images over and over again until the ones I am not bored of rise to the top.

Can you share us the back story/behind the scenes of how you made your favorite photo from the set?

It’s not the best shot from Havana, but there was a cool story to it. We were walking in a residential area of Old Havana and noticed a few people up on the tallest building in the neighbourhood, which was about seven floors high. They signaled to us at ground level and encouraged us to join them. We walked up a windy, narrow, and at times pitch black staircase and reached the summit.

There must have been a fire (from burning garbage or a distant oil well) that scattered smoke across the Capitolio. I shot a couple of rolls there in both BW and colour and got to chill with some friendly locals. It was a much needed break from the hustle of the streets.

What’s next?

For the Cuba project, I intend on going back once or twice a year over the next several years to see how it transitions as a result of the proposed lifting of the embargo. Restoring diplomatic relations is a good start. I am interested to see how this will change the life of the everyday Cuban over the years and hopefully when it is all said and done, I will have my own little Cuba book to share with the world.

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Neil Ta is a Toronto-based wedding and commercial photographer with a love of documentary and street photography. He is also my manager (and cleans up my diapers).