Victor Hugo and Christian prepare a new artifact. They fish until two in the morning, Havana, Cuba, October 2013. Carlos Ernesto Escalona/The Stand

Rubber Match: Man vs. Fish in Cuba

Tobacco Worker - Bangladesh

El Malecón, Havana´s waterfront boulevard, is both a physical barrier between the city and the sea and a gathering place for locals and tourists alike. For years, the waters off El Malecón were used for swimming and fishing, but the government put a stop to swimming and has limited the kind of fishing allowed off the ramparts – barring people from using inner tubes to carry lines out to deep waters or diving for fish.

To get around the restrictions, someone had the brilliant idea of using the coastal stream of salt water toward the west and the wind draft from the sea to the north. Together, wind and tide take fishing lines 700 meters out to sea, where the “big fish” are. Balloons were tied to the lines, catching both the current and the winds and pulling lines out.

The best place to release a balloon is the northern point of the Havana coastline, at the junction of Malecón and Presidents avenues. Over the years, rituals have developed among the fishermen of Malecón. When a new person arrives, the first to come moves to the west, making a place for those who follow. Each line is run by an individual, but putting them together is a team effort. One man, Víctor Hugo, has prepared a small hook with a tiny piece of crab meat as bait. It will be used by Cristian to fish for an “agujón,” a small shore fish about 15 inches long, that will serve as bait for larger fish.

In a country where cash and resources are scarce, people invariably come up with imaginative ways to solve problems and create opportunity. It is no less true along El Malecón, where the high cost of balloons has forced fishermen to find another floatation device for their lines: condoms.

El Menor ties four inflated condoms and joins them to Hugo´s hook. The line has just been prepared when Christian returns running with a living agujón in his hands. “Come on, hurry it´s dying…”. The fish is quickly skewed on the hook and launched back to sea. Tied to five condoms, it will be taken more than 700 meters away to where the bigger fish are.

In the beginning, these men bought fishing tackle on the black market, but eventually their experience and research led them to find new dealers. Much of the equipment is now brought in from Florida through “mulas,” people who deliver specific things from U.S. at order. They know the Miami shops – Bass Pro Shop and El Capitán – but they have never visited U.S. “Internet” Arturo says.

“We fish for home, but if we are short on cash and someone offer money for any fish we sell some. But in the beginning we fish for ourselves,” Christian said. They catch shad, snapper and barracuda. Christian once caught a 30-pound saw fish.

He stands over the waterfront, evaluates the wind and drops the artifact to the darkness of the night and the sea. “Bad day,” he says. “But tomorrow will be better.”

Q&A with Carlos Escalona

How did you find out about this kind of fishing?
I found it by sheer chance. And the most important: ASKING. I was teaching a class of available light photography at Malecón, and then I wondered why the fishermen only caught small pieces. So I asked them if they spend so much time for fish so tiny fishes, and Arturo answered “No, men, just stay for a while and you´ll see”. And I stayed. I stayed for four nights, actually.

Where there any particular challenges to shooting this essay?
Dim light. I don´t like to exceed ISO 800 on my Nikon D200 because of the noise. Second, manual focusing on 16mm f2.8 Russian-made Zenitar lens. I turned the focusing ring slowly as I shot in burst mode. Because the fishermen are most of the time facing the darkness but not the avenue, I sacrificed natural light and used a newer 160 LED panel with color temperature filters to reproduce the same as the street lightning.

Have you ever tried to fish this way?
Never. But I took mental notes if someday I am in a survival situation.

Are there other examples of people finding creative ways to approach daily life that you are working on now?
You bet. These kinds of stories are not hard to find in Cuba. After years of isolation and lack of resources, the Island is full of surreal events that can be seen as natural for us, but surprising for a foreigner. It depends of the point of view and where is the threshold of what you consider as “normal.”

Q&A conducted: June 2015
Photography from: September 2013


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