Travel photographer Vivienne Gucwa has a knack for capturing moments that perfectly encapsulate the feeling of a place. She got her start photographing her hometown of New York City, creating images that showed a uniquely fresh perspective, but also evoked nostalgia for another era. It was those NYC images that helped Vivienne build a devoted social media following, and eventually convinced her to turn her passion for photography into a full-time gig. Now, the Sony Artisan of Imagery travels the world, photographing the people and places that inspire her art.
Late last year, Vivienne got the chance to photograph a country that has been on her travel bucket list for years: Cuba. We recently sat down with her to talk about her work as a travel photographer and why she calls her trip to Cuba, “one of the most life-changing trips I have ever been on. Ever. Hands down, in my whole life.”
How has traveling to new places influenced your work as a photographer?
Travel has been huge in terms of opening up my eyes to new perspectives. Having the opportunity to go to different cities, and experience what it might feel like to be in that culture, has been so incredible for me as a photographer and as an artist.
The more I travel, the more I am aware of not trying to become somebody who just collects experiences. I don’t ever want to get to that point where it’s just another stamp on my passport. I’m into the whole idea of being immersed in a place, and really translating that experience through my photography.
I also appreciate reliving the experience for a long time after a trip. In this day and age, where photography is so ubiquitous, I know a lot of people are like, “Stop taking photos; live in the moment.” But for me, that’s the power of photography: To be able to look back at a moment months later and be instantly transported.
Were you excited to take a trip to Cuba?
Cuba has always been one of those places I wanted to visit, but I didn’t think I would actually ever go. So, it made it all the more special when I did get to go and the whole time I was thinking: “How did I get to this point in my life where I’m in Cuba and I’m taking photos of it, and then I’m going to be thinking about it for ages after?”
And to be honest, it’s now months later and I’m still thinking about Cuba. I think that’s a good thing, because life-changing travel takes you to that place where you need to spend a long time figuring out what happened after the trip is done.
What gear did you bring to Cuba, and why?
I brought the α7S II, the α7R II and two lenses, the 16-35mm f/4 and the 24-70mm f/4. It was the perfect setup because I feel like the gear worked for all the aspects of the trip. The α7R II was good for the daytime because I could shoot enormous high-res files, and capture a lot of details and dynamic range to bring out the colors of Cuba. And then the α7S II is good in low light, so I would use it to shoot at night. I feel like I was able to cover the whole day-to-night range.
Do you have a process when photographing a country you’ve never been to before?
Over the years I’ve figured out that I like a happy medium of getting my bearings, by having somebody who’s familiar with the place give me the local run-down, and just exploring.
Recently, my approach has changed a little in that I’m more open to just letting things happen very quickly. Not giving myself that amount of time to be like, “Oh, but I don’t like that there’s a person on the left side of the frame.” And I found on this trip, especially when I photographed Old Havana at night, that worked really well because all of the shots told an interesting story about what was happening with the people in the streets.
Can you tell us a little bit more about why you were inspired to photograph Old Havana at night?
When I would come back from shooting during the day, and the sun would be going down, I noticed that this is when the city comes alive and when you kind of get the true spirit of Old Havana.
The night that I went out and shot the city was such a special experience, and it’s definitely one of my top travel experiences overall. Old Havana at night was a completely different place than during the day. I feel like it was a great window into people’s lives, and I really tried to capture the feeling of the place. It’s a side of Cuba that you don’t really see a lot of, and yet for me, the images ended up being really memorable moments.
And you used the α7S II for those night shots?
Yes. All of the night scenes were taken very quickly because I didn’t want to be noticed and kind of break the spell of the moment. A lot of the photos were shot as I turned a corner, or as I came upon a scene. I didn’t really think too much; it was all about doing very quick composition and making sure I’m getting the moment before that element of recognition. So it was good to have that low-light capability, because I wasn’t futzing with the settings, which would’ve made me stand out a lot more.
Looking back, were there other aspects from the trip that influenced the images you made there?
We stayed in Old Havana, which was a great experience, because Old Havana is just so different than Havana proper. It’s beautiful in a lot of ways, and the people are incredible. I got more of a feel for the heart and soul of Cuba, versus if I had stayed somewhere else.
Also, it was the first time I had ever traveled in a city where I didn’t have the crutch of Google Maps, or really any kind of GPS, because I had no Wi-Fi access. It was kind of interesting. I just walked out of the hotel and picked a direction. I think it was almost better that I didn’t have GPS, especially the part of Old Havana that I was in, because it was easy to wander and not really have any kind of agenda.
All photos captured on the Sony &
Courtesy of Vivienne Gucwa
An interview I did with Sony about Cuba :)
Really cool! An interview I did with Sony about Cuba just went live!
It was one of the most transformative travel experiences I have had!