WASHINGTON - For many Americans, Cuba is an elusive land with a reputation mired by Fidel Castro and communism. It is literally a land lost in time, and a place most people will never visit.
Local photographer and adventure connoisseur Frank Barnako finagled his way into the tiny country in early 2012 and returned with stunning photographs that can be seen at Great Falls Library in Virginia through May 30.
It all started in October 2011 when Barnako took a photographic tour of Venice, Italy with Newsweek photographer Peter Turnley. After returning stateside, Barnako was ready to do it again. An online search later, the shutterbug settled on Cuba as his next destination.
"I thought, 'That's fascinating.' Who has been to Cuba in the past 60 years? It really is an island stuck in the 50s."
As luck would have it, Turnley was leading a photo expedition to the famed island nation less than a year later. The opportunity was too good for Barnako to pass up.
"This is an island about which I've read and heard and lived through so much history with, but I've never been there and haven't seen it, nor have many people," he says. "The opportunity to see a land that has not been seen by many other people ... for a photographer, that's magic."
He finally made the trek in January and was instantly overwhelmed by the warmth of the people he met and saw.
Consider the 35-year-old cab driver from Barnako's favorite photograph, "Resignation." The driver attended one of the country's free universities, but only makes about $20 to $35 a month to support his family.
"His eyes are just full of resignation for the situation he and his country is in," Barnako says. "The country could more than take care of all its people, but he knows there is no more opportunity for him because he can't get off the island, he can't trade with the U.S."
Barnako never forgot he was visiting a communist nation crippled by years of economic neglect. Despite the country's undeniable charm - retro cars, good food, friendly people - it is filled with contrasts.
On the one hand, sidewalks are bursting with music and smiling pedestrians in neighborhoods like Old Havana. But walk down the alley and turn onto a different street, and life seems to have a different rhythm.
Buildings that were once grand and majestic are dilapidated and deteriorating. People line up for food rations on streets where the lights have gone dark. Visitors get a "sense that there is incredible poverty," Barnako says.
"As with many Latin American countries and Caribbean nations, there are dramatic differences between the rich and the poor. You see absolutely two different economies."
Barnako doesn't currently plan to return to Cuba, but he does cherish the experience. His street-style photography allowed him to see the country in a much more intimate way. Each portrait required meeting the subject, talking to him or her and asking permission to photograph them.
The method resulted in the type of personal interaction many tourists shrug off in favor of landscape or architectural images.
"Cubans are so welcoming," he says. "They want you to see how they live, they want you to see their situation... They are just eager for contact."
See Frank Barnako's exhibit at the Great Falls Library now through May 30. Admission is free.
(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)