Gabriel Davalos (@davalos_photography), 36, grew up in Havana amid what he calls conditions of “immense spiritual wealth and the necessary material things.” But as the Soviet Union began to implode in 1989 and Cuba was battered by a severe economic crisis, many Cubans emigrated. Davalos was determined to stay in the country he calls his “utopia.” Later he became a photojournalist, using his images to question and explore the reality around him. Communicating by email, Davalos writes about how his pictures are, above all, about storytelling, and why he is drawn to dance for inspiration.
The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
Cuba must be a complicated place to be a photographer. How free are you to take the photos you want?
When I was young, I wanted to take pictures but I did not have a camera, nor the money to buy a camera. Then, an Italian photographer—a friend of my family—donated his old Nikon D200. I began my journey that day.
Do you now use an iPhone or a regular camera?
When you live in a poor country, you are forced to be creative and learn, no matter what kind of equipment you own. Becoming an excellent professional can help close the technological gap. Whether you begin or end your career with an iPhone, what really matters is how creative and knowledgeable you are.
Tell us the story behind the ballet-type shot of the man and woman in the street. Are they professional dancers? How many “takes” did you need to get the right image?
This shot features two professional dancers who are dating in real life. They belong to different companies and had been working in different countries for several months. That day was special: the reunion of two Cubans in love. This photo came together after 50 attempts.
And the other couple lying on the ground in the rain?
This picture was taken at the famous Malecón of Havana. In some years, the sea floods the streets in lowland areas. When I heard the news on television, I picked up these two dancers, who were still rehearsing at the National Ballet of Cuba, and we went out together looking for photo opportunities. It was risky business taking the pictures under the rain, with the ocean coming in and the strong winds. At one point, three ferocious waves dragged the dancers all over the street, while I had to hang on to a utility pole!
Head to Davalos' Instagram for more visual journals.
Read more from the Cuba Issue of the Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly.