Three years ago, I accepted a dream job to travel to Cuba as an assistant for a National Geographic photographer. I immediately fell in love with the country, visiting several times after that initial trip. With each return, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to local creatives bursting with talent — photographers, models, painters, musicians — all of whom were eager to connect with the greater art world outside the island. Those trips changed the course of my life.
At the same time, I had people following my work from the States continually asking me for travel advice about Cuba. I realized that I had become a sort of bridge between these two cultures that were desperate to connect with one another. So, I wrote to several photographers who do “photo tours” in Cuba, asking for assistant jobs. None of them had open positions, and that’s when I decided I should just do my own thing catered to young women.
The women’s photography network @Girlgaze shared information about my trips and within a day, my inbox was flooded with emails from women who were interested, and by the end of the week, the trip had sold out! The response was overwhelming, and I knew that I had tapped into something that artists from both countries were seeking.
My initial goal for these trips was to create the type of travel adventure that I was seeking as an artist. As a freelancer without a dictated schedule, traveling (and life in general) can be isolating and overwhelming. I wanted to create a vacation that allowed people to create and connect with other artists in the area.
My grandparents met in Miami in the late 1930s and decided to travel to Latin America — they were both artists seeking adventure outside the States. They started the first American school in Ecuador and later became business owners, raising seven kids before eventually settling in Guatemala for the remainder of their lives.
I grew up visiting my family who had spread to several different Latin American countries so I’ve always felt at home down there. Latin culture has played a huge part in my upbringing and my own art making.
This definitely isn’t your typical group tour. One of the girls who came down with me on a Cuba tour said, “It feels like you’re just visiting a friend who happens to live in Havana.” I want these experiences to feel exactly like that. We eat at my favorite restaurants; we do photo shoots with my friends who are talented models and stylists; we visit studios of established female artists; we go on photo walks through non-touristy neighborhoods; we visit galleries and do walk-throughs with the curators… The trip is entirely about creating art. Of course, we also go out salsa dancing, swim in the ocean, and drink a mojito or two. The best part is that we share a lot with each other, and I make sure that each woman has the opportunity to talk about her own work and personal goals for the trip.
Most tourists come and go, visiting countries through polarized windows on air-conditioned buses — or, in Cuba, they arrive on massive cruise ships that sit in the harbor polluting the water and consuming all of the resources. There is no cultural exchange. In these scenarios, the tourists just take from the country and move on.
The collaboration between artists is crucial to my travel experiences. We have so much to share and learn from one another. This curiosity is the foundation for the art that we make on these trips. I’ve also always been sensitive to photographic exploitation, so when we’re out on our photo walks, I make sure to teach the girls how to say, “May I take your photo?” in Spanish. Though there are exceptions in street photography, portraits should always be an agreement between subject and photographer.
I’m grateful to the women who have chosen to travel with me and am endlessly amazed at the collaborative art we create together each trip. Anyone can email me at [email protected] to learn more or just chat! You can follow along and see more images on my instagram: @amandabjorn
Over the last few years, I have been fortunate to meet a wide range of Cuban female artists and designers. Despite the struggle for materials, government censorship within the arts, and expensive access to internet, these women persevere by continuing to push themselves creatively. Here is a selection of five Cuban women artists who inspire me immensely:
Gabriela Pez, Painter @gabypezz
Leysis Quesada, Photographer @leysisquesadavera
Lauren Fajardo of Dador Havana, Fashion Designer @dadorhavana
Renata Crespo Suárez, Photographer @renatacresposuarez
Alejandra Gonzalez, Photographer/Performance Artist @alejandraglezvisual_artist
Upcoming Trip Dates:
December 5-20th, 2020
March 4-9th, 2021
February 5-10th, 2021
January 28th-February 1st, 2021