Ultimate proof of life: Photographing Fidel Castro’s re-appearance

November 24, 2010

Nobody in Cuba or elsewhere believed the international press would be photographing former Cuban leader Fidel Castro again, in 2010.

Since 1959 and even before, he has been killed and buried many times by rumors, reports in the media, his enemies and circles of opponents to him.

“He is dead”.

“He has been mummified”.

“He died and the government is not announcing his death just yet”.

“He is dead long ago and the pictures are just photo tricks”.

“He is dead and he has a double”.

Constant rumors, hopes, plans, talk and wishes for his demise, have even been occasionally echoed by some mainstream media, triggering Fidel Castro’s death celebrations in Miami among right wing circles and the hardcore Cuban exile community.

We have witnessed former U.S. President George Bush in Newport speaking at the U.S. Naval War College on Friday, June 29, 2007 saying: “One day, the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away”.

U.S. officials have for years hoped that Castro would die. Released CIA documents showed how in the 1960’s they even tried to hire the Mafia to kill him. According to Cuba there has been over 600 proven recorded attempts to assassinate him over the years.

Fidel Castro is a special subject; he is either deeply loved, protected and revered in Cuba and worldwide by communities politically on the left, or intensely despised and his death longed for by conservative communities on the right, curiously he leaves no one indifferent, there are no in-betweens.

Now in the internet and digital era, Fidel Castro can also be killed in a videogame produced in the U.S. and released earlier this month. The company expects to sell over 18 million copies; so millions of people can play at killing Fidel Castro, over and over again. But they will only be able to cyber kill him: only a virtual kill.

Pictures are now the ultimate proof of life, without any doubt, that Fidel Castro’s death has not happened yet. His recovery is visible at only 84 years of age. Longevity figures in Cuba are relatively high. Many here in Cuba think Fidel Castro will join the “120 Years Club”, that he envisaged to help Cubans reach a ripe old age.

My first photograph of Fidel Castro in Johannesburg airport May 9, 1994 (L) and in Pretoria on May 10, 1994 using my camera.  (C and R).  REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

The first time I photographed Fidel Castro was close-up with a wide angle lens in South Africa on May 9, 1994, at Johannesburg airport, when he arrived to attend the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa. The next day, on May 10, before the inauguration ceremony in Pretoria, I saw him again, and this time I waited until his bodyguards were relaxed and then I asked Fidel Castro if he would take a picture with my camera, of the press gathered there. He agreed, took my camera and started shooting pictures and I also shot pictures of him with my second camera, close-up again with a wide angle lens, When we were done he gave me back my camera and asked me if I had ever been in Cuba. I answered that I hadn’t so far, but I intended to visit his country very soon, which I did later that same year.

There were no cell phones, no laptops, no internet, no digital cameras and no videogames at that time so I sent the film I shot in an envelope with a courier for processing and transmission by an editing team waiting in our office set up in Johannesburg, and that day the Reuters Pictures wire sent out a picture to clients with the byline: Fidel Castro. It showed reporters at work before Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as President of South Africa. The pictures I took of Fidel Castro using my camera were also sent to the wire.

Now, only 16 years later, I was hoping to see him with my own eyes and photograph him again from the moment I arrived on assignment in Cuba in mid 2009. I was completely convinced of his eventual re-appearance as I had been monitoring his health and gradual recovery since his illness over the last four years. I monitored different channels, sources and rumors. I was helped by brief appearances in rare, blurry and infrequent pictures and videos that were made available through people visiting him or through foreign governments friendly to Cuba.

Whenever I voiced my thoughts of a possible reappearance of Fidel Castro with members of the international press, diplomats and several other people, they always looked at me as if I had gone completely mad. They were all convinced it was not going to happen, some could still not believe it was going to happen, even minutes before his first appearance.

It was 08.36 am on August 7, 2010, at a national assembly meeting. It was not official he would be appearing, but he did.

And since then he has appeared again and again.

Fidel Castro is back.

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro listens to a question during a meeting of the National Assembly in Havana August 7, 2010.  REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

Fidel Castro went on to appear three times over the course of only a few months, the first of them at a parliamentary session broadcast live on television, and then two more in broad daylight and in public, at two of Havana’s landmarks, the University and at the Revolution Museum.

For security reasons, the press just get a few hours notice before each appearance, and never confirmation or assurance of his presence. The former guerrilla fighter, former head of state, and still Commander in Chief of the Cuban Revolution and Secretary General of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), is surrounded by special and highest security level. Press coverage in Cuba is unpredictable, we simply have to be always ready, and that is a round the clock, 24/7/366.

I think all photographers that have shot pictures of Fidel Castro, will agree with me; he produces a high number of quality pictures for the photographer in a very short time. Unlike many other politicians, he is extremely expressive and it is relatively easy to get a good picture of him. For any photographer it’s just a matter of pointing the camera at him and pressing the shutter.

My aim is to get as many different backgrounds, the best expressions, different angles and a variety of pictures as possible. This means improvising, moving from assigned shooting spots, wading through crowds, over barriers, getting the ok from security, thinking out of the box. It is hard but possible and very rewarding work.

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro speaks during a meeting with students at Havana's University September 3, 2010.  REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

I saw him appear helped by aides. When he walks now he needs help on both sides, but once he is sitting or standing at one place he relaxes and appears more confident. I began to shoot pictures as soon as I saw his face appear, and followed him through the lens until he was seated. He was then helped to the podium, stood and spoke briefly, for around ten minutes. When he finished speaking and was back in his seat, I decided to move and change position from our fixed assigned seating at the stands. I wandered around the parliament. I was allowed to move with no problems. I was looking for different pictures of him with cleaner backgrounds. After I had shot some frames from the sides, I asked security to allow me to shoot pictures of him straight on. I was told earlier that I would not be allowed close up, at the front, from where the Cuban media were working with short lens. I knew this but I asked anyway, and kept asking.

As I had a 500mm F:4, I asked security if it was possible for me to go to a position among the seated members of the parliament, not too close but close enough. After a few minutes a security officer came to where I was and escorted me to the position I had requested and allowed me to remain there for three minutes. I noticed Fidel Castro was aware of my movements as I was standing among the seated politicians and stood out with the big lens, pointing directly at him. He seemed curious and I was able to produce some interesting pictures of him looking straight into my lens.

For the second appearance, the press was notified late one evening to be present for a security check at Havana University the following morning at 06.00am. It was still night time and pitch black but the crowd waiting to see him was already big, including some tourists wondering what was going on. By 08.00am, Fidel Castro was speaking to students and 30 minutes later I was able to set my cameras at 100 ISO as he spoke in direct sunlight, producing pictures with great quality and no grain,. These were better quality than at the first appearance – indoors at the national assembly indoors – but the event was shorter.

The third appearance was even better for pictures. It was 07.00 am. The setting was in front of the former Presidential Palace, now Museum of the Revolution, beside a Soviet SAU-100 tank, used by Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs U.S.-backed invasion attempt in 1961. Smooth cloud cover made lighting even and easy to manage and allowed for 100-200 ISO settings.

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro speaks during celebrations at the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) in Havana September 28, 2010.  REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro speaks during celebrations to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) in Havana September 28, 2010.   REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

After having covered the U.S. invasion of Iraq, been embedded with a Marines assault unit, gone on several visits to Afghanistan, the Indian subcontinent, turmoil in the Palestinian territories, photographed the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and many other assignments around the world, covering news in Cuba is at least if not more exciting in a different way. In Cuba there is more a lack of news than there is news and the country and its people are unique in every way from any other country or people I have known; Brave, challenging, unpredictable, tough, dignified, beautiful and as an assignment much less physically dangerous to cover as a photojournalist, but not less complex. Complexity in Cuba is a gross understatement.

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro speaks beside the Soviet-made SAU-100 tank he used to repel the U.S.-backed invasion attempt of the Bay of Pigs in 1961, displayed outside the former presidential palace, now Museum of the Revolution, in Havana during celebrations to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) September 28, 2010.  REUTERS/Desmond Boylan


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Love your experience Desmond.

Posted by beaw | Report as abusive

Amazing insights. Very interesting follow up. One has to kind of leave out their political opinions over the person or the war and the people involved.
That way you get the pictures without prejudice. Outstanding pictures you got there, Desmond. Thanks.

Posted by walumbe | Report as abusive

Great read & pictures Desmond!

Posted by CikaPera | Report as abusive

Amazing photos and article Desmond. Thanks for sharing and inspire me as a photographer…

Posted by Dinictis | Report as abusive

I had heard rumors that Castro had undergone stem cell theraphy after his illness, whatever that was since nobody gave details of what his illness was. A picture that I saw recently where he was wearing his olive-colored uniform, showed him very young for his years. There is no date on your pictures, but apparently the latest must be the one where he is wearing the cap with the star on it. He doesn’t really look that young in those pictures. He looks better on the three pictures where he is wearing the cap without the star. You also mention that he needed help getting to the podium. According to the article I read that accompanied the picture wearing his uniform and the cap with the star, he was trying to gain back the reigns of his country, which he had ceded to his younger brother, and in that picture he appeared younger and refreshed. But if the latest of your pictures are the ones where he wears the cap with the star, then I doubt that he can regain control of Cuba for long, as those pictures show him as an old man.

Posted by Carimari | Report as abusive

Wonderful article and Amazing photos Desmond. Thanks for sharing

Posted by SHIVPHOTOS | Report as abusive