Cuba is back on everyone’s map. But while the country has opened to more visitors, few have been privy to the insider’s glimpse Marius Jovaisa enjoyed when he finally obtained permission to photograph the country from above. Here he shares some of that insider knowledge as well as a few of the spectacular views he captured in flight over the island nation—many more of these stunning vistas are collected in his new book Unseen Cuba.
Longitude. What first sparked your passion for Cuba?
Jovaisa. I came to like aerial photography as a genre some 12 years ago. It was a combination of my attraction to all types of adrenaline sports (like paragliding, skydiving, bungee jumping, wake boarding, snowboarding, surfing, etc.) and a passion for photography. After publishing books on Lithuania and Belize I was thinking, what next. I went to see Cuba and realized that nobody has been able to take aerial pictures of that amazing country because of secretive political regime and technical difficulties. I thought it would be awesome to try to become the first man on the planet who could convince the Cuban government to give permission for such an endeavor. The other thing is that Cuba is world famous and I was expecting that such a book would receive interest in many countries. That was the beginning of a five-year-long story.
Jovaisa. The fact that nobody has been able to take such pictures before was a clear indicator for me that things were not going to be easy. And I had good friends from Lithuania who as businessmen were trying to establish commercial relationship with the Cuban tobacco industry. Their stories about year-long-waits and unimaginable bureaucracy also proved to be true. By the way, they still haven’t achieved half of what they were planning to do! In Cuba there is no civilian control of the airspace and everything is strictly managed by the military. Once we overcame that, the biggest problem was the aircraft: in other countries I rent whatever is available but there were nothing suitable in Cuba. So I ended up buying my own ultralight from Australia and bringing it to Cuba.
Longitude. Did you read any books to help you understand the complexities of Cuban culture?
Jovaisa. I read all available travel guides as well as books on Cuban history and travel. For example, Havana Nocturne by T.J. English. Also Castro’s Secrets by Brian Latell. I tried to learn as much as possible. I had five years for that after all!
Jovaisa. It all began some 15 years ago when I was walking the streets of my city Vilnius around the time when the big Christmas tree was being erected in the main square. There was a big construction crane which workers used to get the tree decorated. I managed to deal with the crane operator and he let me in the platform. I was able to see the Old Town of Vilnius from some 30m height and it was so different than the regular view! Later I repeated such tricks in other cities of the world, including Moscow. After that, logically, I began looking for more heights and more freedom of movement. But construction cranes are still something I like a lot, especially for low light long exposure photography.
Longitude. Did you see signs of change within the country while there or during your flights?
Jovaisa. Not too many and definitely not too deep. Yes, more people are coming, especially from USA and there are more opportunities for small private enterprise but there are no systemic changes in terms of freedom of speech, pluralism, democracy etc. I hope it will come.
Longitude. What advice do you have for the first-time traveler to Cuba?
Jovaisa. Do your best to stay at privately owned houses (casa particular) instead of official hotels. That way you get to see real people, real Cuba. Cubans are amazing, extremely nice and pleasant people.
Longitude. What is your next project?
Jovaisa. Next year I will do a completely new book on my home country Lithuania. It will include aerial as well as traditional and macro photography. Ten years will have passed since the first publication of Unseen Lithuania and I have a lot of ideas what other never-before-seen things and places to present to Lithuanians and the whole world!