“It wasn’t until I was on the airplane flying back to Washington that I said to myself, ‘That was incredible, that was history.’”
Growing up, Chip Somodevilla thought his chances of going to the moon were more likely than travelling to Cuba. But 56 years after his father left as a refugee, the award-winning Getty Images photojournalist not only travelled there, but did so alongside President Obama, covering his historic trip as the first sitting President to visit the country since 1928.
“As a second-generation Cuban American it was always engrained in me that Cuba was a place I was never going to go in my lifetime. It was just a fantasy, a glimmer in the past,” said Somodevilla, who grew up in Texas and is now based in Washington, D.C., where he covers politics for Getty Images. “It seems unreal to be a part of this story.”
For the four-day journey, Somodevilla flew to Cuba on a charter organized by the White House Correspondents Association, providing him with an insider’s look into the President’s trip and giving him credentials and access to the President that he wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Reporters meet to talk about coverage on board the White House charter plane before landing in Cuba.
“When you fly with the WHCA, you are in what’s called ‘The bubble,’ which means you’re in the universe that the President occupies. It’s a whole different world — you are part of the machinery that’s makes up the President’s trip,” he said. “There’s always security and decorum surrounding the President so when you travel with him you experience a country in the limited capacity that he does. It doesn’t always feel like reality.”
Because of this access, Somodevilla photographed moments such as President Castro greeting President Obama, and the two Presidents at a State dinner listening to traditional Cuban music.
But to him, the most meaningful event he photographed was the baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays.
“Cubans love baseball,” he said. “When President Obama and President Castro arrived at the stadium together the whole crowd went bananas—the applause was big and you could tell people were thrilled. I think President Obama’s attendance at that game did more to elevate him in the eyes of everyday Cubans than anything else he could have done during that trip.”
“The fact that I was in a stadium in Havana photographing the President watching a baseball game was unreal,” he said. “I can’t think of words for it.”
As momentous as this trip was on a global scale, it was also incredibly significant to Somodevilla on a personal level.
“To see the Cuban people begin to have some hope that we are going to have a positive working relationship was really special. I don’t know if they have a lot of hope about whether or not their government will change, but I think they see some brightness to the future between the two countries and that makes me really happy,” Somodevilla said. “I’m hoping that whatever develops between the U.S. and Cuba ends up benefitting both countries and that we have policy and diplomacy that moves all of us forward and to a better place. That’s my biggest hope.”
While documenting President Obama’s experience was his main focus, Somodevilla couldn’t help but feel enamored with the vibrant people and culture of Cuba.
“They are proud, educated, conscientious and well-read people. There’s a lot of pride in being a Cuban and living in Cuba. They live their lives out loud and are uninhibited — it’s a photographer’s paradise,” he said. “I just love walking around with a camera on my shoulder and experiencing the overwhelming visual stimulation that is Cuba. Everywhere you look it’s a moment. Everywhere you look it’s a photograph.”
Explore more of Chip Somodevilla’s historic images of Obama’s trip to Cuba at gettyimages.com