National Geographic Traveller (UK) is a print and digital magazine based in London. Early last fall, the magazine reached out to Miami-based James Jackman for a new travel story on Cuban food and culture in Miami for its December 2023 issue. Though James had not worked with the editorial client previously, his photographic style and experience in the Travel, Food/Drink, and Social Documentary specialties made him a perfect match for the magazine’s aesthetic and the story they were hoping to tell.
I hate to say it, but I’m not sure where they found me. The magazine’s photo editor, Ben Rowe, reached out about a shoot in Miami with a tight turnaround and, of course, I accepted immediately. On this particular assignment, I had a lot of freedom to choose what to shoot and I love that.
The vibrant Cuban culture and cuisine are at the heart of Miami’s cultural identity. Its Little Havana neighborhood in particular is home to many Cuban exiles, as well as immigrants from all over Central and South America. The neighborhood is a center of cultural, social, and political life in the city, especially for the Latino community. For the project, James had to showcase Cuban food at iconic restaurants in the context of a travel story — treading the line between Travel, Social Documentary, and Food/Drink photography, while working within the guidelines of the magazine’s established brand.
The Nat Geo style is of course very well known, but the difference for National Geographic Traveller is that the images are usually more carefully composed, more telephoto or medium focal length, as opposed to the typical wide-angle in Nat Geo.
At this point I feel very comfortable with fast moving editorial assignments. I have experience shooting food but not in an overly ‘food photographer’ style, as 99% of the time, I use available light and surfaces. This project was a great opportunity to flex that style. In addition, I think my knowledge of Miami was a big help.
A shoot like this takes careful planning and attention to detail. Local to the Miami metro area, James was excited to “represent Miami in the best possible way.” He brought to the project an insider’s knowledge of the city, and proposed some landmark restaurants, bars, and parks for the shoot.
The pre-planning was pretty simple: I just submited a quick list of ideal shoot locations and reasons why I thought they should be included. For the most part I had contacted all the restaurants prior to the shoot. Every location was open for business, so I was shooting amongst the bustle of everything.
Most days, there is plenty of movement on the streets of Little Havana. In the heat of the Miami sun, everything feels more vibrant and intense. Inside of the neighborhood’s iconic restaurants, bars, and dives, however, Miamians and beach revelers alike find respite and imbibe the spirit of the local culture and community — and maybe a mojito or two. For this project, James was in the thick of everything. He shot nine different locations around Miami over the course of six days.
Part of the timeframe was due to scheduling around other shoots, availability from the restaurants, and finding the best daylight possible. I think I spent about an hour at each location.
Capturing high-quality and thoughtfully composed images in such a short time is a skill unto itself. James has honed his ability to work efficiently in busy environments like bars or restaurants, and to do a lot with a minimal outfit of equipment.
I’ve gotten really good at being scrappy with editorial work. For example, learning to fold a paper napkin so that it stands up to throw bounce into a plated dish. Or I might walk into a restaurant that I’ve never seen or been to and quickly find the best light to work with. The majority of my editorial work is not scouted and I’m making the most of what’s available to me. Of course I have light stands, bounces, and flashes, but setting all of this up in a busy restaurant is never ideal. I’m also very loyal to the sunlight and try everything possible to use what’s on hand.
On set, James had two assistants, Rebeca Mendizabal and Martina Hoyos. They helped with translation when necessary, as well as with bounce and reflector cards so James could capture every location, dish, and moment in the right light during the busy hours.
My plan revolved around catching the crowd at each spot. At Versailles, I wanted the morning coffee rush. At Ball & Chain, I wanted daylight during a busy time, which I guessed was Friday afternoon. At Enriqueta’s, it was the lunch rush at noon.
The Cuban spirit of Miami is expressed through its food culture. The client wanted to spotlight this aspect of the city’s culinary and cultural richness for a global audience. This meant capturing more than just the food on the plate. To narrate the story of Cuban culture for readers around the world, James focused his lens on the regulars, the employees, and the spaces they have cultivated over generations. James says that his work is “highly influenced by the available light and energy in a space.” He shared his tip for taking candid shots on an open set.
I like to watch the scene for a bit and see how the subjects move within it. If there’s some nice light, a nice pose or moment, then I’ll ask to shoot that. Sometimes, I’ll see a nice place for a portrait and move them into that area. I’m pretty adamant about things feeling real, and I won’t ask subjects to do things that they wouldn’t be doing anyways at the restaurant or cafe.
The conviviality and warmth of Cuban culture in Miami can be felt throughout this series. But capturing this spirit was not without its difficulties. Just as the seasons come and go, so do the tourists and vacationers the world over who come to enjoy its turquoise shores. For James, shooting outdoors during the low tourist season was a challenge.
I remember a few days of totally oppressive heat, which, coupled with a low in tourism, made for pretty empty looking streets. That was kind of a bummer and I had to rely on some archive work from earlier in the year.
But James’s professional experience, keen eye, and knowledge of the city helped make this project a success. Plus, there was plenty of nourishing Cuban food and stimulating libations to keep energy levels up and spirits high.
I ate everything I photographed! Also, don’t try to drink a whole colada by yourself, it’s meant for sharing. I was beyond wired.
See more of James’s work on his website.