Diego Vourakis’s debut book is a call to adventure, painting a multifaceted picture of Cuba’s landscapes and its people
In 1969, lawyer Edward Packard told his daughters, Choose your own adventure, to maintain the integrity of a bedtime story he simply couldn’t keep freestyling. This lapse would go on to spawn an entire franchise based on the four-word phrase: a series of gamebooks, written in second-person, where the reader becomes the protagonist, determining the outcome of the story.
Photographer Diego Vourakis adopted this spirit, choosing his own adventure in his travels through Cuba. His debut book De cara al sol is inspired by these trips, undertaken with little more than a backpack full of film rolls, a journal, and an openness to letting the country reveal itself in due time. It’s dotted with brief travel tales, ripped from journal entries, each contributing to a larger narrative: People from faraway places do not need outsiders to speak for them, and the beauty of a sunset or a smiling child is universally understood, best captured via camera.
Like a character in a gamebook, I was dropped into a mysterious compound where I had to create my own story: I spawned at MUSA—a “society where life, work, wellness, and pleasure coexist in effortless synergy,” sprawling on the beaches of Zihuatanejo, Mexico. We were there to celebrate De cara al sol’s release; Vourakis introduced himself to me over my first breakfast, paying no mind to the half-demolished plate of chilaquiles verdes I’d been savoring. He encourages me to “set intentionality” when engaging with his work, urging me to hop in the ocean for a swim, take a walk on the beach. They’re activities that embody the book’s meditative qualities.
Produced by AMILE—a creative agency run by Vourakis, Juan Duque, and Nima Habibzadeh—De cara al sol is both an effort for Cuba’s people (a hundred percent of the book’s profits go to a foundation aimed at providing resources like medicine for the country), and a call to action—to look beyond the photos, to challenge oneself with a new encounter, voyage, or conversation. This is the intention Vourakis’s work is built on, and it sticks—his own sundry adventures a reminder of the humanity that can be found in travel.
Maya Kotomori: What first brought you to Cuba?
Diego Vourakis: Curiosity. I was born in Peru and [spent] my early years there. When I moved to the US, a younger part of me was trying to fit into this new culture. As I grew up, I started diving into my past, settling into who I was, being proud of myself and my culture. As soon as I got my citizenship, when I was 21, I went back to Peru and visited my family. I was curious about Cuba because of the situation they’re in: It’s a romanticized country that’s ‘stuck in the ’50s,’ but there’s so much more there. I took this one backpack: Half of it was clothes, and the other half was film and my camera. I intended to do something there, I just didn’t know what yet.
Maya: How did that become a book?
Diego: In total, I visited Cuba three times: once in late-2020, [when] the borders were back open [after] the pandemic, again in 2022, and lastly, at the beginning of this year. When I got home from the first trip, I had a series of beautiful images that carried so much weight. Then I started thinking about developing an exhibition to raise funds for the people I had met. My second two trips were outside Havana in [the municipality of] Baracoa, and more photos [resulted from that]. I went to Cuba wanting to learn about a different [aspect] of a culture that I was curious about—a whole economy is based on tourism in Cuba, and I know that, if this project was going to be a book, it was going to have to be informative.
Maya: Traveling while looking for an experience, versus traveling as a means of learning through experience, are two different things—this idea of aesthetics versus curiosity is interesting, given your background as a fashion photographer.
Diego: Coming to Peru as a kid, there was this mentality of integrating into American [culture] and taking every opportunity that’s given to you. When I was 15, I wanted to start a clothing brand, so I started learning how to design and [build] a website. It’s touching, honestly, because this was my initial idea of the creative world, which got me interested in design. My brand failed after a few years, and I needed to get a job, so I applied to be a photo retoucher for another clothing brand; I didn’t know how to retouch, but I got the job and figured it out. That’s how I met Juan [Duque], who helped produce this book. That was when I realized I wanted to be the one taking the photos; Juan, at the time, wanted to get into creative and art direction, so we started working together on shoots, and I ended up doing fashion [photography].
Maya: Juan is a part of AMILE, the creative agency behind De cara al sol—did you two start that together?
Diego: Yes, it’s a great story. AMILE, as a creative studio. came out about a year and a half ago. Juan and I just had the name and had made an Instagram account with that [handle], and our whole mission was to bring people together and do things with our friends—just like how I met him in the first place. We knew that money was the last thing we wanted to think about, but we knew that [whatever we did] had to be sustainable. We had no idea how to start an agency, and then we met Nima [Habibzadeh] working on magazine projects, and the fit was so natural. He brought the idea of a creative studio, and that’s how it all started. I was already starting to edit the images for De cara al sol, which felt perfect for our mission: to balance fashion work and projects like this one to actually give back [to communities].
Maya: When it came to creating this specific experience, why host a trip? Why at MUSA?
Diego: I first visited MUSA for a wedding earlier this year, and I just fell in love with this community. MUSA is a place where friends can come together. You can feel every person behind it; you can feel their good intentions. Kiki [Mura] has been working at MUSA for a few years now, and she’s one of my best friends. I was telling her about my hopes for the project, and she was like, ‘Would you want to do something with MUSA for this?’
The more I learned about MUSA, the more I felt like it was an extension of De cara al sol—like, they both inspire being present and focusing on human connection. As it developed, Kiki and I realized that we didn’t want to just do an exhibition where you come in, look at the images, and then leave. We wanted to give people an experience that puts them face-to-face with their own curiosity; MUSA, to me, is the only place that allows that kind of engagement on a human level.
Maya: You’re donating a hundred percent of the proceeds from De cara al sol to Give2Cuba. Why did you pick that foundation?
Diego: I didn’t want to donate money just to donate money. Throughout the island, a lot of people come and help, or donate supplies or money—and sometimes, it gets lost. I knew I wanted to work with a foundation that had reach, to directly provide resources to the people in Havana, [as well as] Baracoa who I photographed and lived among for three weeks [during one of my trips]. When I first met Gustavo [Arnavat], he had this respect in talking to me, as someone coming from outside of Cuba who wanted to work with his foundation. He was excited that I wasn’t Cuban myself, and that I was initiating this.
From its early stages to now, we have built something with more longevity. We’re doing a mentorship program with photography, using the resources we have and brands we’ve partnered with to donate cameras. Photography taught me about the importance of discovery, and gave me a doorway to connect with other people, too. There are so many places in the world that you can visit and experience. We have the internet, and we have the accessibility to bring communities together, to go choose your own adventure, you know? As a photographer, I feel like it’s my job to communicate that through photos.