David S. Bush, Ph.D. is a double board certified neuropsychologist, based in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.  He has over 30 years of professional experience and specializes in providing expert consultation in civil litigation cases, which involve claims of traumatic brain injury and other types of mental damages.  He has testified in hundreds of legal proceedings, and authored several book chapters, book reviews and journal articles on forensic and general neuropsychology. His other passion is photography, and as seen through his delicate images, he offers a very interesting look of street photography and Cuba. In March 2016, there was a solo exhibit of his street photos across three trips to Cuba at the Tamarkin/Rangefinder Gallery in Chicago.  The name of the show was Calle Habana. One of his images was selected as finalist in the Miami Street Photography Festival 2015. 

Calle Habana depicts an inside look at the streets of Habana, Cuba. It encompasses a few trips to the old city so it has an element of time all across. Please share your creative process for achieving these images and why Cuba?

I grew up in Miami in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, so I always had some awareness of Cuban culture.  I went to school with kids whose families were among the first wave of immigrants following the revolution.  As I became more interested in street photography and started looking at some of the most compelling images from Cuba, particularly the work of Ernesto Bazan and Alex Webb, I felt a very strong pull to the time warp there.  I always respond to that.  Unfortunately, globalization has brought a lot of homogenization and cities have lost much of their distinctive character; in Havana, this hasn’t happened yet.

It’s almost a cliché that is nevertheless true – wandering around Havana is a kind of time travel.  For now, it’s a place that does not look like any other. More than most other cities, it’s reminiscent of an analog past that has otherwise virtually disappeared.

Wherever I travel, I always want my images to capture timelessness.   I prefer my photos to be ambiguous in terms of when they were created.  I don’t like images with corporate logos or people on cell phones or other specific symbols of modern life. I always hope to get something that’s universal; images that cut across time.

My creative process flows from what I am most interested in and curious about.   The best work, inevitably, comes from a deeply intuitive and unforced place.  When conditions are right, it’s a mostly effortless and highly instinctual process – truly a flow, in the best sense – that is accompanied by a very high level of mental focus and joyfulness.

Some of these images show a raw and very lively setting of a normal day in Havana, I gather you must have adapted your way of being to try to immerse yourself in this environment?

Life in Cuba is not easy.  It is simultaneously raw and very lively.  I am pleased that you find these qualities in my photos.  It means that the images reflect the authenticity of life there, both in terms of the harshness of the basic living conditions and the very deep poverty along with all the sensuality, grit, and irrepressible joie de vivre.  So many of the people that I’ve encountered there are strikingly resilient and resourceful and know how to live well despite all the strain and material deprivation.

The reality is there is no place in the world that I have visited that is more conducive to street photography than Cuba.  Most of the people are extremely warm and gracious and open.  They are wonderfully expressive and animated, and they are generally not threatened by being photographed, especially when they are approached with respect and friendliness.  The dividing lines between indoor private spaces and outdoor common areas are unusually porous outside of governmental agencies.  Doors to homes are often open.  People are incredibly welcoming and I have been invited inside many times, much more so than any other country I have visited.

In addition to the receptivity of the people, there are a couple of other factors that make Havana very unique for street photography.  The golden Caribbean light is special, particularly in the late afternoon. The architecture is spectacular, even though the infrastructure has been devastated and large parts of the city have been badly neglected.  The crumbling, pastel-colored buildings make for highly textured backdrops. The graffiti and old school political wall murals are an interesting art form in their own right.

I always love to walk and explore and wander, which I think is an absolute prerequisite for serious street photography.  In Havana there is novelty at nearly every turn. It helps that I have a friend, Alain Gutierrez, who is a talented photographer living in Havana.  He has brought me places that I either would not find on my own or would not feel comfortable exploring by myself.  Having said that, Havana is a very safe and inviting city.  I have not had a single bad or threatening experience there.

You are an accomplished neuropsychologist; your conclusions and approach to photography and the subjectivity it holds must be fascinating, what goes on your mind when shooting? And when you’re not shooting?

It’s interesting – I became interested in photography and psychology at around the same time, when I was about 15.  Neuropsychology involves puzzle-solving.  Street photography is much more visceral, almost like music.  Despite these differences, there is some overlap and I am certain that my many years of training and experience making sense of human beings – in all their nuanced complexity – increases my empathy as a street photographer.

Attention to detail is something that is important in both neuropsychology and street photography.  The narrative arc of a differential diagnosis is often held together by details that are embedded in a patient’s history.  Unless one looks carefully and in the right places, important information is easily overlooked and misinterpreted.  Similarly, subtle behaviors or subtle changes in behavior often signal a particular type of neurobehavioral disorder, and this requires very careful and systematic observation.  It is not something that can be done casually.

Street photography and the capture of decisive moments also require careful observation and attention to fine detail.  A particular gesture, the organization of elements within a frame, the angle of a shadow or shaft of light, and the configuration of individuals in a group composition are all things that happen in milliseconds and can make or break a street photograph.  Patience, luck, and being unobtrusive are always important, but as I mentioned earlier it also helps to know where and how to look.  My background as a neuropsychologist helps me distinguish behavior and emotional expressions that are revealing and spontaneous as opposed to the kind of constriction and anxious self-consciousness that often occurs in response to being observed and photographed.

Being curious about people is an important common denominator. The power and richness of unspoken communication is another area of overlap that is vital in both neuropsychology and street photography.

Your photographs always include people in action, whether it’s at the barber shop, or kids playing with each other, it’s always a very specific action that characterizes your images. Both from a psychological and photographical standpoint, what do you observe in your subjects?

Your observation is an interesting one and not something I have previously considered.  I’m not sure that this is globally true or perhaps an underlying motif that characterizes this particular series of photographs.

In any case, I don’t think I can really say what I observe in the people that I photograph; the range is too great and I hope the pictures speak for themselves.  I am always most interested in spontaneous behaviors – gestures, expressions, responses, and interactions – that have nothing to do with me as a photographer. I always hope to capture something that is authentic about the people in their contexts because it carries the most meaning, and makes for the most compelling and evocative images.  What I am talking about here is the antithesis of posing.

I also always have in mind how I might combine or juxtapose elements in a way that’s different from ordinary visual perception.  Photography is truly fascinating in this respect; it enables a transformation of visual reality in ways that are original and ambiguous.

When I’m walking around, there are certain things that always grab my attention.  I suspect this is true for all serious street photographers.  I like grittiness. I am always drawn to mirrors and reflections for the way they alter visual reality. Deep shadows often create a similar effect, and I like conditions that involve mixed light, but they are usually technically very challenging.  Independent of these interest magnets, the thrill comes from following curiosity.

Why do you think there is such a fascination for Cuba right now? Specially for photographers and artists.

My sense is that the current fascination with Cuba is mostly an American phenomenon.  Europeans have known about Cuba and been going there for some time.  Here in the U.S., the trade embargo and the political relationship of our two countries imbued Cuba with a forbidden quality.  As conditions in both countries have begun to change, it’s like the lifting of a veil.  It’s a thrill to discover a nearby island country that is so unique and was previously off limits. The fact that Cuba has been entirely off the grid of global corporatization makes it extra interesting to visit and explore.  It makes sense that artists and other creative types were among the very first wave of visitors, although I think that moment has already passed more or less.

There is no doubt that Cuba is currently in vogue.  It’s become very commonplace for people to say they want to get there before McDonald’s and Starbucks arrive.   My personal take on this is that Cuba is not going to change overnight.  The challenges there are complicated and quite massive.

You travel to New York continually, it’s truly a remarkable city to do street photography. It clearly holds many differences with Havana, but surely, there are similarities, maybe from the chaos and authenticity they project. How can do you compare these two?

New York City and Havana are two of the very best, if not the best, cities in the world for street photography.  Both cities are incredibly alive and fast-paced.  Both cities are romantic and have beautiful, albeit very different, light. NYC is jazz and hip hop and Broadway show tunes.  Havana is salsa and mambo and Afro-Caribbean rhythms.  NYC is cool.  Havana sizzles.  Both cities hold mystery and beg to be explored on foot.  Both cities are made up of neighborhoods that have different vibes and characters.   Theater fills the streets in both places.

NYC is very rich, while Havana is very poor. I see NYC in black and white, but Havana is vivid color. NYC is culturally and ethnically diverse, more so than anyplace in the world.  A street photographer taking pictures of people there encounters a wide range of responses and must have some skill for dealing with that.  People in Havana are generally receptive or at worst indifferent to being photographed.  They are never openly hostile; at least I never encountered that response there.

At the risk of gross over-simplification, the faces of people in New York reflect the strain of intense time-pressure and competition despite their incredible affluence.  Faces in Havana show the dignity and resilience of the human spirit despite a constant struggle for reliable access to basic resources.  Having spent a lot of time walking around both cities, the irony of this juxtaposition is not lost on me.  Travel and street photography have taught me that, ultimately, the things that people have in common with one another are much greater than whatever differences are shaped by culture, ethnicity, geography, governments, and local conditions.

Most of the images were shot with the Leica M (Typ 240) and a few with Nikon D600. Please share your thoughts on both cameras and under which circumstances do you use them the most?

Even though I am not much of a car enthusiast, I sometimes think of the Leica as a finely-tuned, handcrafted sports car that is very precise and accurate.  It has no bells and whistles, and it enables the experienced driver to feel the road.  Even though driving this car is an enormous rush, it is still nice to occasionally get behind the wheel of a luxury automobile that has automatic transmission, power brakes and steering, and a smooth, even ride no matter the road conditions. That’s how I think of the Nikon.  It requires less of the photographer and sometimes it’s just easier to handle.

When I was in Havana last year, I used my Nikon to take a series of photos of boxers.  Many of these images were shot at fairly slow shutter speeds to emphasize motion and power. I was able to rest my camera on a bleacher and use it as a kind of tripod.  It helped to have a zoom lens with autofocus and the images, many of which I have just recently gotten to, are pretty good.  This is an example where the Nikon is a much better fit for the situation than the Leica.

Another way that I think about this is that I make pictures with my Leica, but I take pictures with my Nikon.  I almost always prefer to use the Leica because it just has that certain something that is profoundly satisfying.  But, undeniably, in certain situations, especially those that involve very fast action, the Nikon works better.

Lastly, what other projects are you working on and is there anything else you’d like to mention?

I am looking forward to returning to Cuba later this year.  Ironically, it’s more difficult to travel there now that the restrictions have been eased because it’s harder to book a hotel.

One long-standing project involves street photography in Hasidic communities, particularly Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  I love the old world look of these neighborhoods, which, visually, have that same kind of timeless quality that attracts me to Cuba.  The problem is these communities are mostly closed to outsiders.  There are, understandably, high levels of distrust and suspicion.  The people there do not like being photographed, which of course must always be respected.  All of this makes for very challenging conditions to say the least.  Still, I’ve been persistent.  I’ve begun to accumulate a small number of good photographs that I hope to add to going forward.

Thank you David!

To know more about David Bush’s work, please visit this website