‘Punching the Air’

Photographer Holly Wilmeth tells Brandon Hoops the story behind one of her favorite pictures from Cuba

By / June 2012

We do not know the road. Nor do we really care to know. We’ve silenced the voice on our dashboard, with its preference for stiff movements and straight lines, and drifted onto a dirt road, which moves slow and brown like a tired river through the Cuban countryside near Vinales, two hours from Havana.

The scenery framed from the windows of our small rental car has the simplicity of a sepia-toned photograph. The hills stand in the distance, wearing warm greens and dusty tans. Tobacco plants cover the fields below. What ground is exposed closest to the road could use a little moisture for its cracked skin.

It might not be an impressive display to most, but for two photographers who can’t let their cameras ride as passive passengers, it’s absolutely gorgeous; it’s hard to not stop every minute to take another picture or two or ten.

One such moment came when we spotted a row of palm trees farther along the road. We pulled off to the side, eager to preserve a piece of the tall, stately pillars. As we got out, two boys came alongside of us riding their horses bareback. They talked fast and moved their horses even faster when they realized we were photographers. They were boys, and of course they had to show off.

Holly Wilmeth, 34, is a freelance photographer based in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and Guatemala.

“Take my picture,” one boy shouted in Spanish as he put his barefoot to the side of the horse and rushed back and forth on the road. The other boy followed in kind, getting his horse to rear back on its hind legs while asking me to take a picture.

Although I was hesitant to photograph them at first, their innocence and playfulness won me over. I got down on the dusty road and caught the horse with its legs punching the air. Then I turned to the the other boy, and found him flat on his stomach with his arms wrapped around the torso of his horse as if he were hugging an oversized stuffed animal.

I probably took 15 shots, which is not very many, but horses don’t stay very still. They like motion. This made photography difficult. So when the boys eventually came back together and halted their horses on the road, one in front of the other, I got excited because I knew I was in position to take a picture with depth, a picture with personality.

Throughout my time in Cuba, I was always trying to break free of the predictable shots you find from the region, the shots of old cars and quiet, colorful streets. For instance, during my final days in Havana, I suddenly started photographing people and the objects they were carrying. What made the pictures unique is that I had them cover their faces with the objects. This series is one I’ve repeated in other places and it has become one of my most popular, and I think it’s because the images pull you intimately into the essence of who these people are.

People are at the core of all my travel and work. My journey in photography began in the countryside of Guatemala, documenting culture and agriculture, and it has taken me to 50 countries, including the times I’ve lived with nomad families in the Tibetan mountains and the Sahara desert.

No other form of art can document human life as readily as photography. Photography doesn’t lie. It is bold and raw. Sure you can mess with a situation or you can manipulate it in Photoshop, but because people let me into their space, I’m always asking, “How can I be as honest as possible to the situation?” I want to treat them with kindness and respect. I want to give them freedom to be themselves.


— as told to Brandon Hoops