Cars in Cuba are famously functional antiques, purchased in the early 50s when Cuba had a strong urban middle class with a particular taste for American cars. All economic activity was restricted after the Communist Party took power in 1959, leaving Cubans to devise ways to keep their current cars working. The additional restrictions imposed by the U.S. embargo further prevented Cubans from accessing spare parts, so many of the cars in use today are outfitted with German or Japanese diesel engines. These antiques are not nostalgic symbols, but rather artifacts from before the revolution and testament to the Cuban people’s ingenuity. While motoring enthusiasts in other countries salivate over Cuba’s fossilized classics, Cubans themselves are less thrilled — In fact, they are actually far more passionate about modern American cars.
Automotive photographer Piotr Degler was ecstatic when he was finally able to fulfill his dream of time travel — to photograph Cuba’s antique cars. In his “Carros de Cuba” collection, he has captured images of the famous Mercedes Gullwing, as well as other Jaguars, Porsche, Hispano Suiza, and other cars he found along the way. He’s shared some of his images from this veritable “Jurassic Park” for car lovers, which he’s also preparing to publish in an upcoming book. For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann spoke with Piotr about the work.
Emily von Hoffmann: How did you become interested in photographing Cuban cars?
Piotr Degler: Two years ago I had launched Degler Calendar, an exclusive automotive calendar which every year features a different selected automotive theme. 2014 was Concept Cars by Bertone, and 2015’s: Carros de Cuba. This is why I found myself in Cuba for a month. I was in search of the most interesting cars on the Island. Visiting Cuba has always been a dream of mine since I was a kid, because of my love for classic and American cars. Finally I took my “travel through time” and it became a reality.
I wanted to photograph the cars in Cuba for 3 reasons: The political situation in Cuba was starting to change very quickly, so it was the perfect moment to do it. Secondly, I wanted to show the daily life of the classic cars on the Island. That’s a kind of Jurassic Park for every classic car lover. Thirdly, I wanted to find more exclusive cars which are hidden today in private garages or “rusting in peace.” My inspiration and motivation was a photograph of a Mercedes Gullwing taken in Cuba back in 1978.
I traveled the island from Viñales to Santiago de Cuba, stopping in dozens of towns and cities. As I forged friendships with enthusiasts and local mechanics, I opened doors normally closed to foreign tourists. I took over 25.000 images during that month, but published only 12 in my calendar as an introduction last year. Now, finally, the moment for the Book has arrived. I will publish a selection of the best images of the whole trip, in two sections. In the “On the Road” section you will find photographs of great classic cars which have a daily use still today — a tribute to the cars that have survived over half a century on the island thanks to the inventiveness of the Cuban people. In the “Rust in Piece” section, there are images of the famous Mercedes Gullwing, and other Jaguars, Porsche, Hispano Suiza, and other cars I found along the way.
EvH: When did your enthusiasm for cars begin?
PD: I have had petrol in my veins since I was around 10 I guess. I always loved classic American cars and knew Cuba was full of them. When I was 15 I travelled Europe to attend some classic American car meetings, because it is not so easy to find them as in the States. I love all types of cars; classic, modern, American, Italian…
My passion for cars actually made me move to Italy to study and work as a car designer many years ago. Last year I had the time to start this project and here it is! It is something that I’ve waited for a long time.
EvH: You had a unique tour of Cuba because you got to know local car enthusiasts — can you tell us more about this experience?
PD: I am very lucky because I travelled the complete Island. It was not a tourist trip, so sadly I had no time to visit beaches or relax in beautiful places. I saw a lot of places and made some real good friends, which today I can call family. Avoiding hotels and staying with locals is the way you can discover the real Cuba.
EvH: How did you seek out and approach these people? Is that a tactic you might use in other travels, when seeking a unique angle on a project?
PD: An important fact was the language. I come from Spain, so my language ability was a plus, but being blond with light eyes is not something that helped me pass unnoticed! Cuban people are very friendly and they were always just lovely.
EvH: The images are very realistic, and you wrote that “everything you see happened by chance, with natural colors, un-retouched photographs — the pictures respectfully show the reality as it is.” Who are some of your visual inspirations?
PD: I am used to working for car companies photographing their new models and prototypes.
I work on a shot for hours and every reflection and detail needs to look perfect there. In the Carros de Cuba project, it was something totally different — documentary/reportage — with more spontaneous shots. I hope this book will also be a visual document for our children in the future. The global automotive panorama in Cuba won’t look like this in 10 years, because you will see a lot more modern cars.
You can already see a lot of Kias, Hyundais, and Chinese cars on the roads. In a documentary project, you can’t have people posing for the shots, or use post-production programs to make images look like ads.
Nobody has never done a project on Cuban cars on this scale, so my inspirations for this project did not really come from other photographers. I wanted to play with the compositions in the frame and create beautiful images, showing always the reality as it is. The colors in Cuba are beautiful, and there is always a wall in the background which matches the cars in the foreground, you need to get just the right perspective and be there at the right moment.
EvH: What are one or two of your favorite images from the collection? (Can you share the situation surrounding the image, or alternatively, the history of the car?)
PD: Selecting just 2 images of the 25,000 would be too difficult. It was almost impossible to choose 12 of them for my 2015 calendar. I would say the most important photograph of the trip is the one with the Mercedes Benz 300SL Gullwing at night under the banana trees. I knew there was a Gullwing hidden in Cuba, and did spend the whole month looking for the car. A couple of days before the end of my trip I found it. It was a great moment in my life.
This image became viral on Internet, as the value of a 300SL Gullwing is over 1,000,000 USD. All the Gullwings you can see nowadays are restored, which makes this photograph unique. People think they can buy this cars and restore them, but obviously this is impossible.
EvH: Can you share any plans for future work that you’re particularly excited about?
PD: I have a couple of other interesting projects in my mind, but need to see first which will be the result of this Kickstarter campaign. I am very curious as it is my first time on Kickstarter — I thought this the best way to self-publish a photo book, because it allows the photographer to be involved in the whole process. Other than that, I have some shoots of modern concept cars waiting for the next month, but would love to make another big project like this again in the future. It is something more personal and artistic, so please, if you like this project, help us supporting it and you will soon hear some news again…