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Mark Gong

Cuban Life

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I wanted to do one last great backpacking trip before settling down in the Big Apple, so in Spring 2008, I visited Cuba.  Like most countries I travel to, I try not to have any preconceived notions of what to expect.  What I found was a land and people far more familiar than I could have imagined. Cuba resonated with me like no other country I have traveled, and reminded me of what life was like being raised in Communist China.  From the red handkerchiefs tied around the necks of students to the bicycles on the street, at almost every turn I experienced déjà vu. Scenes from my childhood came to life, lifted from memory and morphed into my surroundings, replaced with Spanish and colonial buildings.  With this feeling of nostalgia, I began to capture settings that reminded me of the life that I once knew. While Cuba has its own cultural identity, many common threads linked me to my past. Larger themes such as the close-knit communities, the omnipresent government, sports, and the patient wait for change is something that both counties share. I went about photographing the people as if I had always lived there.  Cuba gave me the opportunity to relive my youth as if I always had a camera around my neck.



Mark Gong is an award winning New York City-based freelance photographer.  His passion for photography started when he took his first camera on a solo backpacking trip across Africa and Europe.  Not long after, Mark landed the prestigious internship at The Washington Post and the Eddie Adams Workshop.  His photographs have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fader, Surface and Popular Photography.  Recently Mark won Best in Show at FotoWeek DC as well Surface’s Avant Guardian Project.


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46 thoughts on “mark gong – cuban life”

  1. Very good eye. Great use of color, texture and shadows. It’s always a delight to look at pictures that sing, dance, and bring the viewer into the soul of a place and its people.

    Isn’t #4 out of David Alan Harvey’s Cuba book? :-)

  2. I was just thinking the same about these photos, they are very much like DAH’s Cuba photos. Love the color, the capture of moment and spirit. I never felt the flavor of China as suggested at but felt total Cuba. Great captures Mark. Stirs up that old desire to go to Cuba again.

  3. Sidney Atkins

    Beautifully presented images by someone obviously very skilled and sensitive. Naturally, one can’t help but be reminded of DAH’s Cuban work… Mark Gong seems to like more formally balanced compositions, however, whereas DAH’s Cuba pictures often have just a little imbalance that creates tension and movement. I like both both approaches.

  4. i have to say that reminds me of a commercial camera brochure…Fashion like style..Destined to sell…Although nothing wrong with that approach in our times..there is always a fine line…imo

  5. Pingback: mark gong – cuban life | burn magazine | The Click

  6. Congratulations Mark, really nice stuff.

    This is a beautifully done example of the genre. Photographs in the HBC tradition, in colour, in a colourful exotic locale. Awesome compositional skills here, the gym shot is so tight it almost looks set up. You are a talented guy.

    I always think work like this is more about the photographer than about the subject. More about making beautiful photographs than about making a statement or telling a story. This is not a criticism.

    With the amazing quality of the low light photograph here, this series is also a testament to the modern digital camera. This would have been impossible with film. Speaking as someone dragged kicking and screaming into digital I can only say Viva la Revolucion.

  7. Hola, is it the Mark Gong of Trekearth (wayyyy back!)?

    glad to see you here. Superb, love the pictures, and not surprised one bit you took giant strides. You are an inspiration, Mark. Thank you.

  8. Mark,

    Beautiful work here, really enjoyed this essay. Nice tight edit of images that really capture the place- as your essay explains, there is a visual/personal connection that shines through in your images!

    I look forward to seeing more of your work in the future.

    Cheers, Jeremy

  9. Thanks for all the comments everyone. When I was starting out in photography, DAH, Alex Webb and HCB were all big influences to me, so no doubt you will see similarities. Having this story published on DAH’s magazine is truly an honor.

    When I was traveling through Cuba, I not only wanted to see and hear but to interact with the people. This is probably why so many of the photos are physically close to the subjects. Most these images were made after spending a lot of time talking to them. While I like to say it was all about the subjects, it was more about satisfying my own own curiosity and fascination with the country.

    In some countries, waiting for the right shot can be trying, but in Cuba, their pace of life made the process very easy. I hope everyone gets a chance to visit this wonderful and unique island.

    All the best,
    p.s. It’s good to see old acquaintances from TrekEarth, where it all started for me.

  10. Too close in MANY pictures? Smiling…

    Difficult topic, not easy to avoid the cliché trap.. nicely done work, thank you!

  11. Congratulations Mark,

    This is a beautiful essay indeed. I see a very solid look throughout the presentation and that seems to have been your target. I have never been to Cuba and the truth is that it would be difficult to go without any preconceptions, it’s undoubtedly one of the most photographed countries. And I never went to China either, so comparisons are impossible for me.

    But I do feel that you managed to be consistent, diverse and thoroughly personal in your approach. I like the closeness, the color and shadows, the intimacy and the clarity of time and place.

    Will be keeping an eye for more of your work.

  12. I think it’s very hard not to repeat other photographers who already made a stories in Cuba… and yes, i I agree a big challenge to photograph after DAH ;-)
    I also think that it’s hard to photograph so colorful and pretty place… it’s simply so photogenic that is hard to make there something very strong and not to make it look like a postcard from holidays..
    I like few photographs a lot.. 1st one is great for example…

    Btw.. do you know Lorenzo Castore “Paradiso” from Cuba? GREAT, GREAT photographs http://www.agencevu.com/stories/index.php?id=359&p=131

    Cheers, Aga

  13. Manuel Garcia

    Nice shots, beautiful colors,, but in my opinion there is a lack of personal view, cause they are so DAH,,, but neverthelless still a great job

  14. Good work Mark. Congratulations. All strong photographs: 1,8,10, and 12 are the strongest for me.

    The intro was concise and informative: a refreshing change. Thanks for sharing and I’m sure that we will see more from you. A re-visit to China would be most interesting!


  15. Eva, I recently bought a more wideangle lens ;) I got bored of the 35mm. too close, composition is very easy now. But with wide angle, wow, it gets difficult, challenging.
    That is what I mean with too close for example in 2,3,5,6,8,11,12. When you go further away, it gets difficult, but in regards of photography more rewarding, maybe.

    Take for example picture 6: Such close it is easy to catch them this way. Especially with digital equipment and the composition in mind. But when you go further waway, huhh, a lot of more layers, objects, information,…

    Mark, of course one sees your influences. But I wouldnt bother. Everyone is repeating somehow. The mroe work you watch, especially with Internet, the less surprising you see. But one thing as photographer should not happen: get bored just because you see a lot. I enjoyed your series, of course.

  16. MARK,

    Congrats on your publication! Cuba is clearly a magical place and it is always a pleasure to look at photographs from this very special country…. There is no doubt however that DAH is a tough act to follow and unfortunately, he is not the only one :):):)…I am sure you must also be familiar with the work of Alex Webb as well (recently published Violet Island with Rebecca). Aga was right to also share the work of Lorenzo Castore…I have his book and the work is very original indeed. The work of Ernesto Bazan in B&W is also amazing (see link below).


    In this context, producing something very original on Cuba with real authorship is not a small task. I thought your pictures were good, actually I thought some were even very good like 3,4,5,6,8 which for me stand out but….at the end of the day, will I remember your photographs???… not sure these have raised the bar vs what these great photographers I mentioned have already done… By the way, I know how difficult this can be. I have traveled in Cuba myself twice..I was starting in photography at the time, was very inspired by the book of David but then, when I look back at the pictures I took back then, some are still OK but most are forgettable as well when compared to those photographers…

    So, Mark, you certainly have talent and a good eye… but I remember once David sharing an advice to a student working on a topic previously covered by great photographers…there is really no issue working on a topic that has been done before, on the contrary but then you have to raise the bar…. Easier said than done but that’s what makes it fun. Right?

    Hope you carry on and share with us more in the future.



  17. I have heard
    that if you feel the magic of Cuba,
    you will go back…
    You clearly felt the magic….
    I wonder why you chose this title for your images?!?!?

  18. I really like the first photo and would have liked to see more photos in the same style.
    Some of the photos are very Cuba as seen many times…
    I agree with outdoor pictures being stronger than the inside ones as commented by Harry.
    thanks for sharing!

  19. I have a neurosis :-), against highlights, but the many positive comments about the first picture had me look at it again, and yes, it’s a finer shot, and a stronger image than I saw it first.

    Diwolf, likewise, i was not sure why these shots could be too close, and it makes a whole difference for you to come back and explain what you meant with your commentary. Good points.

  20. Looking at these pictures It’s hard not to think about other photographers work, like DAH or even Alex Webb, although I think the essay has it’s own life, the compositions are perfect, maybe too perfect…lol… the color and lights wow…very well executed. Like Panos mentioned someone needs to be brave to photograph a place that DAH shoot already. When I was in Rio this year, my girfriend asked me why I wasn’t taking pictures…simple, very simple…
    Congrats for the publication and I just wish number 14 was mine…
    Big hug.

  21. Hi Mark.. I like many of these images, particularly 14. I’d be interested to see some of your images in B/W as I personally find that colour can be a distraction to some images. For example I find the colour of the car in 16 to overpowering and may be a more effective image in B/W. Just a thought.

    Pleased to of seen your work.

  22. Beautiful pictures, well-composed, well-lighted. If they existed in a world with no history they would be truly fantastic. That’s not to say one can’t do something that’s been done countless times before. How many bowls of fruit have been painted by how many master painters? But do these Cuban photos add anything to the history of Cuban photos, or are they just another well-painted bowl of fruit?

    I’m kinda with Martin Parr with this. Show that kind of skill in a Walmart parking lot and I’ll be truly impressed.

  23. Aga

    Thankyou for the Lorenzo Castore link. Intersting stuff, I did wade through it twice. Unfortunately the trendy slow shutter speed blur becomes tiresome after a few images.

    Instead of moving away from the cliche’, I’m afraid he is just adding to it. More exotica, just ramped up.

  24. michael

    great comment. I agree with you, though some of these photos are particularly well painted bowls of fruit.
    Several are the best I’ve ever seen . #3, 4, 10, and 11 are truly spectacular.

  25. Mark,

    Really wonderful stuff. I don’t think it is a bad thing at all to be compared to David and Alex. They also followed the photographic traditions of those that came before, and put there own spin on things. We need to see more of your work to see where you are going with this and see your personal vision but overall excellent.

    Congratulation and all the best,


  26. Dietmar, don’t know if I agree with you.. you can have a layered, perfectly composed picture with absolutely no soul, and a less perfect one that just sings.. composition is only one piece of the puzzle, with whatever lens you play.. have fun, what did you get?

    Eric, yep, Ernesto Bazan has a great and solid body of work on Cuba, the book is just stunning, and the prints are a delight.. if you have a chance to see the exhibition, do so, it’s very well worth it (as the book is)!

    Ok, outta here, three days of shooting and fighting ahead..

  27. jenny lynn walker

    Super, super speedy comment:

    A wonderful portrait with some truly spectacular images! I love them! I see a touch of DAH – not only in the colour but in some of the compositions and of course, the use of natural light. But, DAH more regularly gets in closer and to my mind, it’s missing the high energy moments and the smiles. I would most definately cut 5 (and probably 7, 14 and 17). On the other hand, I wish I had taken images 6, 8, 10, 11 and 13 myself.

    As Bob would say…. runnnnnnnnnnnnnnning!

    Panos: Are you a clairvoyant? Let history take its course…

  28. Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    Solid and competent photography. But here is a problem – and perhaps this is my own problem except that several people have touched on this idea. The works of Alex Webb, Cartier-Bresson and David Alan Harvey have all been sited here either as inspiration or in the sense that this photographer has a style related to them (and others no doubt). So my problem (and here I call it MY problem) is, why does so much photography just feel like so much other photography? I’m unsure about my own relation to this problem except that I find myself truly unmoved by images lately that, while they do all the things that ‘good’ photography purports to do – color, contrast, framing, subject, etc – I am just simply unmoved by it. I want to be but I am unable. I really want to feel something about this work (in fact I connect with the idea of the author’s upbringing and the sense-memory that Cuba provides him) but I dont find it in the work itself and, instead, more photography a lot like other photography. I feel like I am not being presented with new ideas or questions either of an aesthetic or a sociological kind. I offer this not (wholly) as criticism of the author but as a general question that, for me, has arisen out of this small body of work. Mark, you are clearly an excellent photographer as your website abundantly demonstrates. But I want more. I want more from myself and I think I want more from you too.

    Congratulations for being here.

  29. I think these are immersive and impressive. I too was in Cuba, on my honeymoon, but I’ve not shown any of the images. I would need to be there on my own to really get into the fabric of the place. I think you have achieved this. These are intimate and beautifully observed. They have a joyfulness about them. I can almost smell the warm, humid late evening air. They’ve just now brought on a craving for that delicious Cuban coffee.

    So what if others too have made fine work in Cuba earlier? You now can add your name to the list of photographers that have made Cuban photos of the highest order. Period!

  30. Ultimately it’s about the photographs but making gorgeous pictures like these is not all about the photography. It’s about actually being in the place. Mark was there. He made the shots. He made the effort. He made the journey. He made the friendships. He got real close. And, of course, he has made some photographic magic happen.

    Would we all make pictures like these if we found ourselves in Cuba? Not likely. And besides, if Mark is American, it may well have been tricky getting into the country. Much has been achieved here.

  31. I like most of these photos though, as others have noted, I feel as if I have seen them before — Cuba is picturesque, and it’s apparently impossible to take a bad photo there, so this selection presents the usual views. That said, I do wish there were more of the enigmatic shots — the boy with the insects around the tube light, the final shot of the man and the car in the darkness. I also liked the rooftop scene, though I wish it had been shot at a different time of day.

    It would also be nice to see more evidence of your personal interest and connection to the people. Most of the close-up people shots seem more like compositional exercises than engagement with their lives. Your Cuba should look different from Harvey’s or Webb’s — but I only get a little sense of Mark Gong’s Cuba, and I wish there were more of it.

  32. Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful comments and critiques. There seems to be two school of thought on my Cuba photos. First it looks too much like DAH and Webb’s work there. Second it’s easy to photograph there because it’s already so beautiful. I like to think that the images I made there is a personal story, without the intent to outshoot anyone or reinvent the wheel. There are common threads in my story that holds true for other phoographers who have shot Cuba. Family, passion, mochismo, sports and the slow wait for change are all represented here. To purposely ignore these subjects or to photograph them in a way that is not fitting with my own aethetics defeats the purpose of a personal story. Why shoot something differently for the sake of verity when everything I love about Cuba are represented in those frames?

    I dont’t think it’s easier to make images in Cuba than elsewhere I’ve photographed. The personal pressure to photograph somehwere that many greats have shot is very daunting. I know many photographers that have shot in Cuba but no one would ever call photographing there easy. It may look like beautiful images are there at every turn, but the truly special ones are still far and inbetween. Most of the images you see here took hours of waiting or days in the case of the openning shot. Cuba pushed me harder than any other place I’ve shot.


  33. Ooooo, Mark. The final image–#16. Man with car. Don’t ever leave that universe.

  34. boo-hoo, i wanted more, MUCH more! I usually cringe when i see work shot in Cuba. I always ache for someone to go there and see something different, shoot it different, show me something different. It never happens. Well, i did like DAH’s Cuba work quite a bit. But yours was, well, it was JOYOUS! A big glad-to-be-alive romp of color, ‘calor’ and genuine enjoyment of your subject matter. And as i got to the last photo i was thinking, and not ONE cliche (i.e. old car)..and oops, there it was, the inevitable old car. But by then i had already forgiven you as i waited for the car to fade and the next photo to appear and then the let-down..there wasn’t a next photo! i loved ’em all…my fave being the kid staring at the bugs flying around the light. Great job! This made me so happy :)


  35. Very nice, though this kind of work has been already done many times in Cuba, this reminds me of some of the best ones (harvey and webb…) ;-)

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