On a recent trip through five Cuban cities I brought nothing more than a backpack, my Leica M with a 35mm Summilux, and a curiosity for anything new. In each city I met with families who graciously welcomed me into their homes. I arrived with little expectations, and returned home with renewed inspiration and new insight about my photography practice.

Cuba can be a challenging place to shoot if your intention is to avoid cliches. How do you erase the memory of an often photographed country and find something new and interesting to say?

The search began for unique, candid images of Cubans going about their lives. The colourful streets of Cuba are full of life, with new stories and situations unfolding on every corner. Capturing these moments unobstructed became a challenge. So I moved through the streets in stealth mode, trying not to affect what was around me while being acutely aware of original and exciting moments that present themselves.

As the trip progressed and I made my way from city to city, to my surprise, I discovered the photos that I connected with the most were the ones I was not trying to make. They were portraits where my presence was every bit as important as the subject being photographed. They were the photos of strangers on the street where our encounter usually began from a simple smile.

[Tweet ““In Cuba, you shoot first and ask questions.” #PatrickConaty #LeicaM #Cuba”]

In one particular situation, I smiled at an older man standing outside his home and asked if I could take his picture. He replied, “In Cuba, you shoot first and ask questions.” When he erupted in laughter from his own words I took the first photo of him. After brief conversation he invited me into his home. Like a child showing off his toy collection he guided me through all the many things he’d collected over the decades with interesting stories to go along with each item. We had couple shots of tasty rum and then I was on my way again.

I shot exclusively with a Leica M (Typ 240) and a 35mm Summilux FLE lens throughout the trip. Using a camera that’s both discreet and straight to the point makes the process of capturing nuances easier, and a joy as well. The compact size and minimal design of the Leica made photography a seamless part of the overall experience. Since most interactions with the subjects were very brief, it was important to have the camera ready in an instant. Pre-focusing the lens and then making small adjustments while framing the picture helped a lot. Manually focusing close up with the lens wide open was effortless (and I absolutely love the detail this lens resolves at these distances, especially in print).

I believe shooting my way through Cuba allowed me to open up to the environment and fully immerse myself in it. I enjoy the calm focus I get while photographing in the street and the opportunities it affords. The tendency to overthink and calculate slowly melts away in the face of intuition and feeling, and that’s when things begin to flow in new and unexpected ways.

Towards the end of the trip I realized that travelling alone, much like the pursuit of photography or any art for that matter, is like looking into a mirror. At times I was lonely while at other times I was extremely happy, and I see that in every photo; my mood, reflected back at me by the person or place I’ve photographed. Sometimes irritated, sometimes frustrated, but mostly happy and grateful to have the opportunity to travel  and meet new people.

Shooting portraits in Cuba taught me that best the way to avoid cliches and subjectiveness was to allow myself to think without actually thinking, and let scenarios unfold in front of me. Not only did this help me document Cuban life unobstructed, I also captured a pretty accurate record of who I was when I shot these photos. This insightful, self discovery nature of the practice is what I love most about the pursuit of photography.

About Patrick Conaty:

Patrick Conaty is a Vancouver-based photographer and visual effects compositor working in feature films. His latest film projects include Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Warcraft, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. His work in film contrasts well with his evolving photography practice, which is rooted in design and urban landscape and most recently has become inspired by the human spirit and chance encounters.

To know more about Patrick Conaty, please visit his official website and follow him on Instagram.