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Hard deadlines, slow internet: Photographer explains how he and his photos got out of Cuba on time

When the Tampa Bay Rays and President Barack Obama made their historic trip to Cuba this spring, the Tampa Bay Times sent photographer Will Vragovic to cover the event. The challenge before him? Try to satisfy an international audience with photos focused on sports, politics and travel. Photos for the newspaper, the website and social media. While facing constant deadlines over 72 hours. With little time for sleep or food. In a country with cars and buildings famously stuck in the past. And a reputation for strict rules Americans aren't used to. Vragovic, 31, had experience covering the team, and the president. But he didn't know one more serious challenge would stalk him throughout his assignment.

DON MORRIS | Times

After a short, bumpy flight, we land in Havana. There are no jetways; stairs are rolled up to the plane and you wait on the tarmac for a bus to take you to the terminal. Just off the runways are shells of aircraft in various levels of deconstruction, cannibalized for parts.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

During the bus ride to the hotel, we get our first real glimpse of the streets of Havana and those classic cars, from the '40s and '50s. When we get to the room, we find something else stuck in the past: the Internet.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

We had heard that connectivity was spotty at best. Think dialup or DSL speeds, from the '90s.

DON MORRIS | Times

This is a problem. Our jobs depend on fast, always-strong Internet connections. Especially in today's "deadline is right now" world.

My normal workflow involves sending photos from my DSLR cameras to my smartphone to post to social media. But the most important thing is to get my photos back to the Times. Not delivering the goods on this trip would be a colossal failure.

The weak, and intermittent, signal only allows half a picture to send.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

I wrestle with my connection until my photos are "home," then push as many out to social media as I can.

I'd been carrying my cameras and laptop around Havana since before 8 a.m. My back, shoulders and feet are talking about a mutiny. I prop some pillows against the headboard and recline, trying to rest while downloading and editing. Somewhere around the 2,000th frame, I nod off for less than a minute, waking up to reporter Marc Topkin warning me not to drop my laptop. The power nap helps.

DON MORRIS | Times

I need a plan. I have to find a good spot to photograph the Presidents Obama and Raúl Castro and shoot the game. I have to find a signal strong enough to send the photos. And I have to finish in time to catch my flight ... or make a plane-load of people unhappy.

DON MORRIS | Times

At the stadium, the first sign of trouble: There are no spots to shoot from on the field. Then I see an ideal spot in the Rays' dugout. My Spanish is not so caliente, so my conversations with the Cuban guards leave me feeling less than settled. But the Rays give me the okay to be there, and hitting coach Derek Shelton says he'll get my back if anyone tries to kick me out.

My next challenge: The WiFi at field level is terrible, and the presidents are arriving.

DON MORRIS | Times

To get the best photos, you have to be "in the bubble," essentially close enough to come into contact with the president. Normally, that requires a background check by the Secret Service, a special credential and security sweep. I am 0-for-3. But when I see the traveling press corps start to assemble behind home plate, my lack of sleep makes me brave or stupid. I walk over and join them. As Secret Service moves through our ranks, I'm sure they're going to ask me to leave.

DON MORRIS | Times

The Secret Service agents pass by me. Soon, other photographers join me as the presidents make their way to their seats. I breathe easier knowing that I am not alone.

It is time to capture some history — starting with young Cuban fans in the stands before the game.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Chris Archer talks with Michelle Obama before the start of the game.

When Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier scores the first run of the game, President Obama turns to President Raul Castro, beaming, and the two laugh and shake hands.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

The moment seems to break through the formality of the visit to that point. By the fourth inning, the presidents are gone. It's time to send, but from where?

An idea forms: I know that the visitors' clubhouse has its own WiFi. I head down the tunnel and grab a seat on the floor in the hallway.

I am in luck. I have a good signal and finally let out the breath I didn't realize I had been holding since sometime that morning. I spend the fifth inning uploading photos.

DON MORRIS | Times

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Dayron Varona (facing the camera) hugs members of the Cuban National Team after the game between the Rays and the Cuban National Team in Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, Cuba on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. The Tampa Bay Rays beat the Cuban team 4-1.

Thirty minutes from the last out. That is when the bus I'm assigned to will pull away from the stadium and head for the airport. But I need to shoot the Rays and Cuban players exchanging jerseys after the game. And suddenly it is over. I run out on the field with the players as the Rays celebrate their 4-1 win. The timer in my head ticks down. I make a few frames that I feel good about, grab my gear and run back to the tunnel to send… and find it jammed with a hive of activity. I can't send there.

DON MORRIS | Times

Near the exit to the parking lot, I see Rays outfielder Desmond Jennings sitting alone at a table for postgame meals. He is using his smartphone. Maybe I could access the WiFi from there? He lets me join him, and I send my last photos out... including one of Desmond Jennings

DON MORRIS | Times

• • •

Photo Gallery: 72 hours in Havana.

Times photographer Will Vragovic had three days to document life in Cuba as he followed the Tampa Bay Rays and President Barack Obama on their historic trip this spring. The state of sports, politics, history and community dominate in 20 of Vragovic's best images. They're a look at what was -- and what is developing.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Men lean against a classic Chevy convertible in front of the Floridita bar March 20. The Havana bar is famous as a favorite hangout of Earnest Hemingway. A bronze statue of the writer sits at the bar.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Street scene in Old Havana, Cuba on Monday, March 21, 2016.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Baseball fans cheer and take photographs as Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer makes his way into the crowd gathered in the "Hot Corner" in Havana's Parque Central on March 21.

Hard deadlines, slow internet: Photographer explains how he and his photos got out of Cuba on time 04/29/16 [Last modified: Friday, April 29, 2016 4:52pm]
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