Desmond Boylan, a photographer who covered war and conflict across the world before dedicating his life to documenting the daily joys and tribulations of life in Cuba for The Associated Press, died suddenly while on assignment on Saturday afternoon in Havana. He was 54.
Boylan was covering preparations for New Year’s festivities in Central Havana for the AP when he felt ill and asked a local family if he could rest on their couch, where he died. Cuban authorities are performing an autopsy to determine the cause of death.
Born in Ireland in 1964, Boylan moved to Spain as a child and began working as photographer for The Associated Press in Spain in 1989. He went on to become a photographer for Reuters, where he covered conflicts during the end of apartheid in South Africa; the U.S. invasion of Iraq; and war in the former Yugoslavia. He was known as a consummate wire-service photographer, able to transition seamlessly from grueling conflicts to sporting events.
He was also remembered Sunday for his generosity with colleagues, his willingness to share tips and advice with other photographers regardless of their level of experience and accomplishment.
“Desmond was a constant presence at the biggest stories of the last 30 years, a total professional who was also kind and friendly to everyone,” said Enric Marti, AP’s global enterprise photo editor. “He was an essential part of our coverage of Cuba, and his work let people around the world get to know the island and its people, whom he loved so much.”
After meeting Fidel Castro at Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inauguration, and briefly lending the Cuban leader his camera to shoot a photo of the surrounding press, Boylan traveled to Cuba, where he met his wife Gloria Gonzalez. The couple lived in Madrid before moving to India in 2004. Boylan covered conflict again in southeast Asia and Afghanistan before the couple and their son Michael returned to Cuba in 2009.
On his Instagram account, Boylan described Cuba as “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen” and his work reflected a profound love of the island and its people. Many of his photos show Cubans smiling during moments of happiness in a country where life can be a grinding struggle.
“I’ve always been struck by how Cubans confront difficulties and resolve problems,” Boylan told Russia Today’s Spanish-language service in a 2016 interview. “Since I came here, all I’ve done is learn from Cubans how to confront problems. It’s been a constant learning experience, that’s something I try to explain in my photos, too.”
Boylan returned to The Associated Press in 2014 and was a key part of the news agency’s coverage of a series of major news events in Cuba starting that year, from the declaration of detente with the United States to a papal visit to the death of Fidel Castro.
“If you didn’t live in Cuba, then you knew Cuba though Desmond’s lens. He was a master at telling the story of Cuba’s people,” said AP photography director J. David Ake.
On slower news days, Boylan would tirelessly prowl the streets of Havana and the Cuban countryside, searching for moments that could show the world the beauty and difficulty of the island that he made his home.
“I would like to be invisible,” he said. “So that I could be in the street with the people, making photos.”