Photographer’s ‘Unseen Cuba’ gives a rare view of the island

The white sands of Playa Perla Blanca in Cayo Santa Maria in central Cuba.
The white sands of Playa Perla Blanca in Cayo Santa Maria in central Cuba. Marius Jovaisa

Even with restrictions lifting on U.S. travel to Cuba, few of us will ever see the island from the vantage point of Lithuanian photographer Marius Jovaisa.

But we can look at his pictures — and marvel.

The first and only artist to receive permission from the Cuban government to fly over the country and photograph it, Jovaisa appears Friday at Books & Books in Coral Gables to talk about Unseen Cuba, (Unseen Pictures, $99.95).

“I put a lot of my heart into this project,” says the photographer of four other large-format books, Unseen Lithuania, Magic Cancun & Riviera Maya, Heavenly Yucatan and Heavenly Belize. “I hope to evoke the feeling I did in my home country. People just don’t have an opportunity to see things from this angle.”

Shot from an ultralight craft, with stunning aerial views of the island from Cabo de San Antonio on the western tip to Baracoa in the east, Unseen Cuba is the culmination of almost five grueling years of Jovaisa’s life. He came up with the idea after the success of Unseen Lithuania, which sold 70,000 copies in a country of less than three million people.

Having grown up under Soviet rule in Lithuania, Jovaisa expected to face a certain amount of red tape getting permits for the project. But he had no idea he’d spend 21/2 years wrestling with bureaucrats before he ever got off the ground.

“At least three times I was seriously considering calling it quits and going home,” he admits. “It was just impossible.”

He learned Spanish to communicate with officials. He traveled to Cuba for meetings armed with his books and plans and promises to pay for everything. He agreed to hire a Cuban pilot and not import one from Lithuania, Australia or — God forbid — the United States. And he still came away empty-handed.

“There would be 15 people sitting around a table with serious faces making notes and producing minutes,” he says. “In the Soviet Union there was this phrase, ‘imitation of activity,’ that Soviet style approach where you imitate that you’re serious, but you know in your heart you’re not going to do anything once the meeting is over. They’d say after every meeting, ‘We’re going to send you updates,’ and I’d wait and wait and then have to come back to the table.”

With support from various cultural organizations and probably more than a little luck, Jovaisa eventually got the OK, with stipulations. No Cuban pilot was trained on the sort of ultralight he had shipped over from Australia, but a Lithuanian pilot was allowed into the country to help assemble it and to provide training. The government also provided a map dictating where he was allowed to fly. At first, all major cities were out of bounds.

Jovaisa, who admits he adapted a bit of a “ask for forgiveness, not permission” attitude, decided to start shooting, show the officials his work and apply for the permits again. The strategy worked: After a year, he tried again and recieved permission to shoot all the cities except Havana, which he was eventually allowed to photograph in April.

Jovaisa says his favorite sights were mostly around Baracoa and its surrounding areas.

“When the sun is low, and you see those endless little islands going toward the horizon with all the reflections, it’s so mystical for me,” he says, adding that he sought out the juxtaposition of manmade structures against natural beauty and that “I am a huge fan of morning mists.”

Seeing the world from above is always exhilarating for the self-professed adrenaline junkie, who is a triathlete and skydiver (he’s also fond of bungee jumping and ran his first ultra marathon of 33 miles in Cuba). But his experience on the ground in Cuba may have proved the most thought-provoking.

“I was a kid growing up under Soviet rule,” he muses. “I still have those memories. I would go to Cuba and feel a little déjà vu. You get transported into another world, back 50 or 60 years. … The Cuban people are very, very friendly. A couple of times I brought my kids with me, and it was amazing how resourceful the Cubans were, playing with my family. It was great, absolutely incomparable.”

Meet the photographer

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables

Info: 305-442-4408 and