On a street near Centro Habana in Cuba, as the late Sunday sunlight shone on columns of crumbling pink and yellow art deco buildings, photographer Vincent Versace stopped to meet an old man who claimed to be the best mechanic in the world. He told Versace he repaired ancient American cars: 1957 Fords, 1961 Buicks, 1958 Dodges, all paint-chipped but held together with swapped-out engines, Bondo and whatever ingenuity he could muster to keep these warhorses rolling.
"Oh, yeah?" Versace recalls challenging the mechanic.
"[The mechanic] says, 'I worked on every one of those. I make their parts from scratch. What do you say to that?' And he's pointing to 1958 Dodges, 1959 Dodges in his garage," Versace says with a laugh. "If you wait long enough, you actually can see 20 vintage cars on the road. It's not a car show. These are driven daily, bought new by grandfathers and passed down to grandsons. That's what it's like in Cuba."
The resilience of a culture frozen in time since the Cuban revolution is the focus of the exhibit "Cuba: Contrasting Images," opening April 9 at Palm Beach Photographic Centre in West Palm Beach. The crumbling elegance of cars and architecture in Havana, Pinar del Rio, the 500-year-old town Trinidad and other locations held an allure for the Los Angeles-based Versace and the 18 Photographic Centre students who made four trips to Cuba between mid December and March 26.
In roughly 250 untitled digital photos that capture what Versace calls "the indomitable human spirit," images linger on Cubans young and old: a 30-something woman picking flowers in a Havana neighborhood; an elderly cobbler polishing Versace's shoes; laundry flapping on a balcony clothesline. On their first trip to Cuba, Versace and the students lived in a series of government-operated apartments and casas particulares, or private homes, rented out to tourists. They walked the Malecon, a four-mile coastal boulevard, "met the sweetest Cuban people you could ever meet," Versace says, and heard rumblings of a new shift in Cuban foreign policy. Versace says he didn't realize what was happening until their return to South Florida on Dec. 17, the same day President Obama thawed a 54-year-old embargo on U.S.-Cuba relations.
"You could feel something was up, the way we were handled by Cuban embassy officials," Versace recalls. "But we were there because there's a sense of innocence and excitement that I wanted to capture. When we send millions of tourists into Cuba again, some of that innocence will be lost. The plumbing is terrible. The electrical wiring is from 1959. No buildings are up to code. If I wanted to do a 'Walking Dead' the movie, I would want to use Havana as the postapocalyptic set. But despite all that, you're never going to find a Cuban with a low sense of self-esteem. They're proud to be Cuban."
Palm Beach Photographic Centre president Fatima NeJame, who accompanied the group, describes their most recent trip two weeks ago as the "most amazing." Inside a decaying school in Trinidad, they spotted a 10-year-old boy wearing an adult-size lab coat and stethoscope. He held an empty bottle of Dial soap, which was jerry-rigged with wires to a broken X-ray light box. He told NeJame that he was preparing to give a female student an ultrasound.
"So Vincent says, 'Are you going to give her an exam?' The little boy answers with a serious face: 'Well, I'm not a gynecologist, sir, but I will check up on her to make sure she's OK,'" NeJame says with a laugh. "The education system is incredible there. By the time the kids are in fourth or fifth grade, they are emulating the jobs they will one day be a part of. It's a uniqueness I hope never goes away."
"Cuba: Contrasting Images" is at Palm Beach Photographic Centre, 415 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. The show will close June 13. Admission is free. Call 561-253-2600 or go to Workshop.org.