Before He Shot Beyoncés ‘Vogue’ Cover, Tyler Mitchell Photographed Cuba’s Skate Culture

Lead Photo: Collage by Alan López for Remezcla
Collage by Alan López for Remezcla
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Tyler Mitchell has been a rising star in the world of photography for the last few years. Just this week, the 23-year-old received the biggest co-sign from Beyoncé. The singer/actress/all-around superstar handpicked Mitchell to shoot her Vogue cover, making him the first Black photographer to accomplish this feat for the magazine in its 126-year history. “Until there is a mosaic of perspectives coming from different ethnicities behind the lends, we will continue to have a narrow approach and view of what the world actually looks like,” Beyoncé explained in Vogue‘s September’s issue. “That is why I wanted to work with this brilliant 23-year-old photographer Tyler Mitchell.” But before Bey changed his life, he became known through his El Paquete project.

Named after El Paquete Semanal – the USB system Cubans use to get the most up-to-date pop culture news (a stand in for the internet) – Mitchell captured the emerging skate culture and the architecture of the Caribbean island. He spent six weeks in Cuba, which became his self-published book, El Paquete.

He traveled to Cuba at a time when the country was beginning to re-establish relations with the US, meaning the US media widely covered the island’s history, and many times in problematic ways. He decided to learn more himself, without letting news coverage cloud his perspective. “I’m just always trying to do stuff that’s not allowed so I wanted to go to a place that Americans and western schools generally seem to paint such a negative picture of,” he told Dazed. “I wanted to stop being so scared and actually just try something out! I was able to find appreciation for Cuba outside of that limiting western view.”

The result was a set of beautiful photos that felt intimate and placed Afro-Cubans at the forefront. “Blocking out the gossip allowed me to shoot Cuba in this a-typical way,” he said. But it’s not surprising that his photos looks at this often-ignored community through a different lens. Part of his mission is to show Black people in non-stereotypical ways.

“For so long, Black people have been considered things,” he told Vogue. “We’ve been thingified physically, sexually, emotionally. With my work, I’m looking to revitalize and elevate the Black body.”

With this series, he focused on skateboarding, a sport that he came invested in as a teenager and that led him to photography. Since skating is relatively new in Cuba, there was excitement each time someone successfully did a trick. It reminded him of what “Los Angeles must’ve been like in the ’70s.”

Check out the rest of his Cuba images on his website.