90 Miles and Worlds Apart

Three photographs from Havana

Today’s photograph of Air Force One flying over Cuban airspace on its approach to Havana has been receiving a lot of attention. As far as I can tell (on Sunday night) it was made by an unnamed Reuters stringer, and it’s been fascinating to see it posted, often referred to as “an amazing photo”.

© Reuters

Regardless of your politics, the photo contains all the required elements of what it means to depict the President of the United States visiting Cuba for the first time in 90 years; streets filled with vintage cars, an eminently photographable neighborhood, Cubans stopping to gaze up as Air Force One descends from the sky.

There’s a companion image that’s also available, and it’s quite possibly the next frame the photographer made. It tells a slightly different, perhaps less impactful story.

Short of tracking down the photographer (or their editor) there’s no way of knowing if either of these two photos are cropped (they most likely are — the aspect ratio is a tell) but it’s interesting how you can prove they’re made from the exact same spot, as the photographer tracks Air Force One from right to left.

It’s possible to draw lines of perspective from mid-ground objects to background objects to ascertain that the photographer hasn’t moved, but has pivoted with the plane. If two photographers (standing five feet apart) made the photos, the objects wouldn’t align with such surety.

If there’s a lessening in the power of this second photo, we can blame the contemporary car driving toward us on the left. A Subaru? Compared to the top shot and its vintage-only automobiles, the white car dilutes what we’ve come to expect from “a quintessential Cuban photograph”. Air quotes, mine.

There’s a third photo, by Rolando Pujol for EPA, which photographs the same flight plan, but from a different street.

Rolando Pujol / EPA

Pujol’s photo has even more context; crowds of people in the foreground, cell-phones aloft, and a pedestrian trio in the lower-left corner, walking away from the hubub, with two turning around to catch a glimpse.

But it misses the secret sauce of what the Reuter’s photographer was able to capture. The Reuter’s photographer went out and made the picture the story required. You can almost hear the assignment; “we need the plane descending, over a neighborhood, with everyone looking-up, and be sure you have old cars in there.”

It’ll be interesting to discover (in coming days) if the photographer’s name will be released.

This piece was co-published on Atlanta Celebrates Photography’s blog.