It’s not every day that you meet someone who has traveled from the US to Cuba. Photographer Lara Mealor had that rare opportunity earlier this year. When we met a few months ago, Lara showed me some of the pictures she took, and I just had to find out more about this adventurous woman and extraordinary photographer.
Here’s what I learned.
Me: I’m always interested in the stories of local artists and how they got started. Tell me a little about yourself.
Lara: “My family moved around a lot when I was young. We moved from South Carolina to Puerto Rico when I was in middle school which was my introduction to Hispanic island culture and stories of Cuba. In the middle of ninth grade we moved from San Juan to Lilburn, Georgia. I graduated from Brookwood High School in 1996. After getting married and living in Lawrenceville for 8 years, my husband, young daughter, and I recently relocated to Flowery Branch to be closer to Lake Lanier where we like to spend time and recharge as a family and with friends.”
Me: Lara, what led you to chose photography to explore professionally and as an art form?
Lara: “It was divine intervention, really. A friend asked me to do head shots for her new realtor business card. We were so excited how the pictures turned out that I looked up photography classes that night. I started the next week at our local university, taking continuing education classes at night. My teacher is now a dear friend and has helped me so much. I got my certificate in December.”
Me: Okay, so now you’re a trained photographer with the ink barely dry on your certificate. How did your trip to Cuba come about, was it on your bucket list or was it serendipity?
Lara: “It was definitely serendipitous. A friend of mine and past instructor was showing her images from a photography workshop she attended in Cuba. I was instantly entranced with the colors, the people and overall culture of Cuba. When she mentioned she was looking for a travel companion to return to Cuba for a long weekend, I jumped at the chance. My husband has always been encouraging and supportive of my artistic spirit – I usually jump first and ask questions later!”
Me: What was your first impression of Cuba?
Lara: “Overwhelming. I was of course there to observe and capture, but I was in complete visual overload. The female security employees at the airport wore fishnet stockings with heels. Everywhere I turned, something different and unusual was happening. It took me a while to even process just the trip from the airport to our Airbnb! Luckily I was able to find my own internal filter so that I could focus on the stories I wanted to capture.”
Me: Here in the United States the rare images of Cuba we see are usually of old buildings, American cars from the 50’s and people living with limited goods and services. What did you like most about Cuba and how were you treated by the Cuban people?
Lara: “The people. After I got over the shock of it all, it was easy to feel the sweetness of the people. When we settled into our own peace, they embraced us. We felt welcomed and safe. It was truly amazing how respectful they were. There were people loitering the streets on every corner, yet there were no cat calls or offensive looks. They had kind eyes and sweet smiles—very lovely people as a whole.
Me: Did you come away with any negative impressions of Cuba?
Lara: “It’s easy to see things as negative that really are just different. The roads were awful, dust and dirt everywhere, but more so there were spots where safety was precarious. It was a busy place, a variety of cars, pedicabs, and motorcycles zooming by constantly.
It was exhausting managing all of it. The food was not as great as I imagined. Although I had a delicious meal at Hotel Nacional De Cuba. I always try to approach life looking for the positive. We will inevitably find it when we search. So those differences, even the ones that affected me negatively, had a beauty to them when I let myself search for it.
Me: I can see from your photography and our conversations that you like to tell a story, how does that play into how you shoot your pictures?
Lara: “Storytelling comes naturally to me. I see the world through connections. Daily life and community appeal to me, so those moments are what catch my eye. I like to use a wide angle lens to capture the sense of place. Although I am new to ‘Street Photography, it appears as though we were made for each other. It seems I lose myself in certain compositions and feel like I become a wonderful servant to those moments. There have been times when I was caught off guard by what I was able to capture and wasn’t aware of the depth until I got back to the quiet of my room. I don’t feel like I am learning a trade or skill—I feel like I am learning a part of myself that has been there waiting all along.
Me: What is your favorite image from your photographic adventure in Cuba and why?
Lara: Isabella! Hands down she will always be my pride and joy image. When I first saw her, we locked eyes. She was an ornery woman, tiny too, probably no more than 5 feet tall. She was reluctant to agree to my request for an image until my travel partner flashed a peso. Our cameras started flashing away. Afterward, I handed her a packet of aspirin as a token of thanks; she hugged my neck and did not want to let go. I hope to find her again one day and make sure she gets a copy of her priceless image. It is one of those images that you just feel like there was intervention beyond oneself. It was like we both lived our lives to be perfect for each other at that moment. I feel like I was just a vehicle to get that image to the world.”
Me: Many of your images from Cuba will be on display beginning August 12th at The LONA Gallery. What do you want people to take away from experiencing your impressions of Cuba?
Lara: Travel is difficult for many people. I want to fulfill a curiosity and give the sense of being there. It is a unique place. A world of extreme contrasts. For many people, they will not have the opportunity to visit, and if they do, it will probably change a lot in the next few years. I would like them to see the goodness in the faces of the Cuban people. They inspire me. For people who have been there I want them to think ‘Yes!!! Exactly!!! And for those who have never been, I want them to feel, even if just for a moment, that they experienced an authentic moment in Cuba.
Me: If you had to describe Cuba in one word, what would it be?
Carolyn Wright is an Atlanta native and resident of Snellville, Georgia since 1987. Carolyn describes herself as a lover of art, world traveler and a student of life. She and her sister Sylvia Culberson own The LONA Gallery located on the square in Historic Downtown Lawrenceville.