One Photographer’s Cuba, Shot Over 60 Trips And 25 Years

A new book chronicles the country’s rapid pace of change over the past three decades.

Photographer Manuello Paganelli journeyed to Cuba for the first time in 1988. “I saw the country in black and white, like a Humphrey Bogart movie,” he says, recalling the dated clothing people wore and the vintage automobiles rambling through the streets. Since then, he’s trekked to Cuba 60 times, photographing the people he’s met, friends he’s made, and cities he’s experienced. His new tome, Cuba: A Personal Journey (Daylight Books, 2016), chronicles his experience in the country.


“Time stopped in 1959 and [the country] hadn’t advanced with technology,” he says. “Now you have brand new Mercedes, all those BMWs, and cars from Asian manufacturers. There’s been an accelerated catch-up; it’s been a fast learning curve.”

Paganelli, who is Italian and Cuban, initially ventured to Cuba to learn more about his cultural heritage and personal history. But for subsequent trips, he adopted the mindset of a documentarian there to communicate the everyday life of people living in country that few outsiders understood. “To most Cubans, I was someone from Mars or from a distant galaxy because they hadn’t met or seen a tourist,” he says. “There were international travelers but not for tourism. It was an adventure [for me]. There was no infrastructure. Everything was dilapidated and beautiful.”

At the time Cuba was still occupied by the Soviet Union and few people traveled to the country. After the Soviet Union withdrew its presence in 1991, Paganelli witnessed the scarcity that resulted from the absence of food and medicine imports from the country. “There were times that I just ate black beans all day and maybe one day I also had some rice,” he says.

In Paganelli’s eye, the country began to right itself around 1995, as he started to notice capitalism start to take hold and grow across the board. “That year, I had dinner with some friends in Cuba and they didn’t know about capitalism, they didn’t know about making money,” he says. “I was telling a friend, I’d rather eat at your house because your food is better [than the restaurants’] and you can earn the money, but he was afraid of receiving my money. He didn’t have the mentality of ‘money, money, money.’ Little by little the people started doing the same [by opening small underground businesses of their own].”

In the years following, Paganelli saw more and more international travelers coming to explore Cuba. He even began to host his own photography-driven tours of the country. “Today when I go, the participants on my photo tours have access of nice hotels and nice rooms, cold water, hot water, air conditioning; I didn’t have those privileges,” he says. “I remember one time I was traveling with a couple of my cousins and one ran out of the bathroom because tadpoles were coming out of the shower head. Tourists today would never see that.”

In compiling the book, Paganelli wants readers to experience a time warp. “I hope they get to see Cuba the way I saw it in those early years,” he says. “Hopefully they feel what I felt.”


Pre-order Cuba: A Personal Journey from Amazon and spy a few photos in the slideshow above.

[All Photos: Manuello Paganelli]

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.