My Portrait Session with Fidel Castro

It was my younger years. I had just published work from the Sudanese Civil War, and the Editor-in-Chief of Germany’s GEO magazine, wrote that “Per-Andre risks life and limb for a good shot.” Basically, I presume he meant I was a young fool, who took on assignments very few in their clear mind would consider.

Then one day I found an airmail letter in my “snail”-mailbox: an official invitation by the Cuban government.

“What the hell,” I thought. Cuba? Really? The communist nemesis of the western world, a last bastion of Stalinist rule, and most certainly a nightmare for journalists and photographers. Naturally, I accepted the invitation.

Weeks later, I found myself inside the smoke filled cabin of a Soviet Iljushin, jetting to Havana. A cheerful delegation welcomed me with Cuban cocktails; a Salsa band played the National anthem of former Communist East Germany; Caribbean beauties waving the flag of, yes, East Germany. “Muchas gracias”, smiled Per-Andre, who was not from the communist East, but actually from the reunified capitalist West Germany.

Backstory

In 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated. The decade long ex-deal with communist Cuba was dissolved, and no longer could Cuba trade subsidized sugar for Soviet Oil. Cuba was in desperate need for hard currency to buy Oil on the international market. Opening communist Cuba to tourism from the Capitalist West was the hated but necessary solution.

Western Germany was the world’s most lucrative tourism market at the time (West German tourists traveled the most, stayed the longest, spent the most), and I happen to be the most widely published text and photo-author in Germany. Therefore, I was invited by the newly formed Cuban Tourism Ministry—which was controlled by the military—to promote the new Caribbean holiday destination.

Numerous articles appeared and I was invited again several times. At one point Fidel’s eldest brother Ramon and I became quite friendly and he hired me as a Media Consultant to the Government. That’s how I wound up, one day in March of 1997, conducting a photo session with his brother, the famous/infamous President Fidel Castro.

The Subject

President Fidel Castro (1926-2016) was the longest-serving, non-royal head of state of the 20th and 21st centuries, and an unquestionably polarizing figure.

From Wikipedia:

His supporters view him as a champion of socialism and anti-imperialism whose revolutionary regime advanced economic and social justice while securing Cuba’s independence from US hegemony. Critics view him as a dictator whose administration oversaw human-rights abuses, the exodus of a large number of Cubans, and the impoverishment of the country’s economy.

Whatever your opinion of Castro and his regime may be, he remains a towering historical figure. I have photographed several presidents, but this was definitely the most memorable opportunitiy of my career.

The Location

The photo session (I avoid saying “ shooting a president”) took place in the Palace of the Revolution in Havana. We photographed in a basement, near the atomic bunker, because I had requested a large area with no windows, no lights, and no wind in order to properly capture the smoke from President Castro’s cigar.

Preparation and Objective

Preparation for an effective portrait is vital. Not only do the technical aspects need to be planned to a T, but some in depth information on the person can foster a positive first impression and help create a personal connection. Given proper preparation, the situation can be left to unfold naturally—people of human calibre will usually put you at ease and make sure the flow is smooth.

But there is a risk in taking images of famous people, beautiful women, wonderful scenery, stunning sunsets, or any other fantastic motif. It’s the risk of shooting something extraordinary in an ordinary way, believing the mere awesome quality of the motif/model will automagically translate into an excellent photo.

Wrong.

The time has long past when viewers are thrilled by a picture of something that is merely spectacular or beautiful, unless it offers a new interpretation or viewing experience. I knew that just photographing this historic figure would not be good enough. My image had to somehow stand out from the many other excellent Fidel Castro portraits; it had to be unique or it would be nothing but merely a personal, but professionally useless, memory.

“Unique photography,” I believe, entails “seeing things differently.” Pursuing new messages, new aesthetics, elaborate techniques and exquisite lighting (must be eye catching, support the creative objective and enhance the message) and lastly, for the sake of image marketability, the awareness of the Zeitgeist—the visual language and aesthetics of your target audience. This is the cocktail I would like to consider my personal signature.

Copying other works makes no professional sense, be it on purpose or coincidentally. It pays to research existing work on a new project and subject matter. Fidel Castro’s photos were found in countless magazines and books worldwide. But I had envisioned my portrait to be different in aesthetics and message. I pursued a unique presidential portrait with all his stereotypical characteristics: distinctive profile and beard, intense stare, revolutionary cap, generals uniform, pistol and smoking cigar. It was to be, not just a moment in the life of this historic figure, but an image that could transcend time and combine the many facets of his personality into a single frame. And given the situation, it obviously had to be a portrait to the President’s liking.

Equipment

In terms of gear, I used a Canon EOS-1N film SLR with a Canon FD 80-200mm f/4 lens—I was already a Canon Brand Ambassador at the time (though this term was officially introduced later). I shot the portraits at 200mm with a long cardboard lightshade (glare was a major concern), a cable release, Gitzo tripod, G2 filters, and a Leica ballhead.

How much easier would it have been, had I had my present equipment, the outstanding Canon EOS-R and its magnificent RF-lenses.

Film

I chose to shoot Kodak Ektachrome 400 daylight film, which ended up causing some problems. You see, my positive slide films of Cuba’s President were to be developed in Havana, and at that time only the KGB-trained Intelligence Agency had the technical means to process E-6 film. Their emphasis on “customer satisfaction” was… questionable at best.

I shot five rolls, nearly 180 exposures, changing only settings as I went and capturing eight shots with every single setting. Why so many? So that I would hopefully have eight perfect original slides of each setting, repeating the perfect settings on various rolls and considering the variations in the smoke. My nightmare was that some rolls might vanish, be ruined in the KGB-style film development or (most likely) both.

I also took a series, adding one light per shot, then fading out the studio lights and using only the cigar’s red glow until that faded into the darkness (see GIF).

Lights

Numerous German Photography Magazines had nicknamed me the “Magician of Light” due to my elaborate lighting style (for some National Geographic images, I used up to twenty lights). Here I had six light sources: Four Broncolor Minipuls 80 studio lights, one reflective board and—not to be neglected—the dim, available light of the red glowing cigar.

Two rim lights were positioned behind the backlit President, outside of the frame, with honeycomb filters and barn doors to avoid glare in the lens. One Broncolor light was directed from the right, straight into the President’s face, carefully positioned so that the nose shadow and catch lights would come out perfectly. The main problem was the blue-white smoke: it was lit by three main lights and was destined to be hopelessly overexposed. Vertically positioned Gradual Gray filters (Cokin G2) reduced the exposures.

The aperture had to allow depth of field throughout the face, but be as big as possible to blur the background and the separation line of the G2 filters. (The EOS-1n had a wonderful Dep1 and Dep2 feature, which allowed exact placing of depth of field between two points). A big aperture also minimized the intensity of the studio flashes the President was subjected to; it also reduced the exposure time needed to bring out the cigar’s red glow.

A fourth light with cone filter pointed at the presidential collar and shoulder flap. Behind me I positioned a white board, which reflected a hint of light onto the President’s ear and unlit side. And lastly, a longer exposure served to bring out the cigar’s glow.

All six lights had to be perfectly balanced, not easy with analog equipment and no chance to monitor the light mix. I did not shoot with the pilot lights (and 80B blue filter for color correction) for fear of overheating my lamps and the honeycomb filters. By the way, these same Broncolor lights still work perfectly after almost thirty years of rugged professional use…

The Session

The Caribbean sun had set behind the vintage skyline of Havana when a jet black Soviet Zil limousine with dark windows brought me to the Palace of the Revolution.

Everywhere, American old-timers rolled over Havana’s cobblestone streets. The city had no neon lights, no commercial glitz, just vintage facades with flickering lamps and communist propaganda. With nothing to do at home, people flocked to the Malecon Promenade to socialize, talk and hug. At the Palace, I was welcomed by a friendly Military, Cuban sweets and drinks. My Broncolor suitcase and Canon equipment vanished into the basement and was discreetly checked by the Cuban Secret Service—not in my presence, but while I was invited to view a historical photo exhibition of the “Liberation of the Ukraine by the Soviets.”

Security was so much stricter than the friendly, casual atmosphere would indicate. After all, Fidel Castro survived over 600 assassination attempts, including an explosive cigar courtesy of the CIA.

President Castro awaited me in the Palace basement with officials in black and officers in white Paratrooper uniforms. I had prepared my entrée, but all that went overboard when the President greeted me with an iron handshake and a hearty clap on the shoulder, saying, “Welcome Per-Andre. Ramon’s friend is my friend.” Fidel Castro, friendly and humble, focusing on his counterparts and not himself. “Tonight young man,” he joked “you will be the commander of El Comandante.”

We had our first rum while my assistants were setting up.

Fidel Castro was one of the most outstanding persons of the 20th century, and was well aware of it. He knew he was larger than life. But though he enjoyed having his photos taken, he hated posing: “I am the First Secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party, not the First Photo Model of Capitalist Media,” he asserted. Indeed, countless international photographers had been denied photo sessions with him. It was obvious how very privileged I was to be in this situation.

Fidel Castro loved speaking. He was interested in everything and everyone. I was focusing on my settings, listening and discussing. Castro mentioned his son Alex – a photographer, and Che Guevara (“he was also a photographer, always shooting beautiful woman”); he asked me about Western Capitalist Media, North Korea, why I used Canon and not Leica, why I loved the Philippines, and countless other topics. It was a constant dialogue, halted only for brief moments when I requested that he stop twirling his cigar, please blow smoke and remain still when I exposed.

He obliged, though he emphasized that he had in fact introduced a non-smoking-campaign and officially stopped smoking—still, he seemed to enjoy smoking two Trinidad cigars during our session.

I could not include his gun in my photo and wondered aloud why he chose not to wear it. “I am with a friend,” he replied, “and it seems my enemies have given up trying to kill me.” Occasionally, we would pause for another glass of Cuban Matusalem Rum.

One could not meet Fidel Castro (or Ramon) without being somehow mesmerized. Both exuded a preternatural, very cordial presence. Yes, the dictator had a dark side, but it was hard to resist his charisma and magical aura when you were in his presence; so easy to fall under the spell of his revolutionary ideals of freedom from oppression, social justice and the promise of a humane society in Latin America. Had it been decades earlier, I may have shut down my Broncolor lights, packed up my Canon gear, shouldered a rifle, lit up a cigar and marched with “El Jefe” into the Sierra Madre Mountains to join the Revolution.

But the revolutionary call to arms had long faded away. These were the days of the US embargo and economic deprivation, the grim reality of political oppression and the peoples daily struggles. When meeting Castro, it was obvious that his charisma was the quintessential magic that had ignited the Cuban revolution of the fifties, fueled by the sad reality that no society in Latin America could or can serve as a role model for the Cubans (unlike the East Germans, who pursued a West German style democracy).

Three hours, many glasses, conversations and photos later, our time was over. The President bid me farewell with cordial words, a hearty embrace, and another clap on the shoulder. All had gone perfectly, but then, not without serious concerns—I watched my precious Ektachromes disappear into the black jumpsuit of a Cuban Hercules who looked like he could squash each film roll with just two fingers.

Two Weeks Later

It was as I feared. The developed slides were over exposed by about 2 stops, and while the film strips were uncut as I had requested, they all had numerous scratches. Only very few slides were nearly perfect… good thing I had taken so many shots with various exposures.

One slide was duplicated on Negative Film and printed in Havana. President Castro was obviously delighted and signed a few prints by scratching his signature into the black corner with a Swiss army knife.

Looking back almost twenty five years later, the portrait evokes mixed emotions. Positive memories of the experience, the discussions, the professional execution and challenges; but ever more brokenhearted sentiments for the people of Cuba; a deep resentment for the failure to finally give these wonderful people the opportunities and life they deserve.


About the author: Per-Andre Hoffmann is a photographer of German and Norwegian descent. He grew up in Brazil, Germany, Norway, was schooled six years in the USA, three years in London (Bearwood College/ Royal Navy School) and graduated in Visual Communications and Media-Design with a German Master Degree.

In over 25 years, he has had numerous assignments and publications in some of the world’s most renowned publications – including National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, Stern, GEO, Forbes, USA-Today, Paris Match, LeFigaro, Cosmopolitan, ELLE, Annabelle, Vanity Fair, UsNews, Wall Street Journal, LIFE-Specials and many more. His image can also be found on an official US postage stamp.

He is the winner of international awards including two First Prizes (2018/2019) in Europe’s prestigious PR-Photo-Award, CANON Brand Ambassador and Consultant for Universities and Colleges (creating photography courses, seminars and short courses).

Hand signed and numbered Fine Art Prints by Per-Andre are available on his website or through email.

Per-Andre Hoffmann lives in Makati City, Philippines. For talks, workshops and master classes, please contact prospathphoto@gmail.com

You can follow Per-Andre on Facebook and Instagram.