Karsh Signature

Yousuf Karsh, master photographer of the 20th century

Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro, 1971

Fidel Castro was born on this day, August 13, in 1926. In “Regarding Heroes,” (Godine, 2009) Karsh shares the story of his 1971 visit with the communist revolutionary.

At the end of our host’s tour of the facilities, we inspected two or three possible places for photography. I chose a simple ceremonial room with a few bookshelves and walls so stark as to suggest a barracks. It turned out to be Castro’s own office. I set up my equipment and went home to the Canadian Embassy, where I was staying as a guest of the ambassador, Kenneth Brown. And then I waited to learn when Castro would see me. Days passed. They were pleasant enough: the weather was wonderful, and I was free to explore where I wished… But planes then left Cuba only once a week, and my time for departure was fast approaching. On the last day, I phoned the Protocol Office every hour: when would the prime minister be free? My frustration was not eased by the embassy phone, which periodically went out of order.

Not until after six o’clock, the last evening, did word come that two cars were on their way to fetch me. Castro arrived in the room we had chosen, quietly, graciously, but looking grave and tired. He was taller than he appeared in photographs. He shook my hand and immediately removed the belt and pistol that were part of his uniform. Then he apologized for keeping me waiting so long; he had had many guests and duties during the previous days of anniversary celebrations. As I readied the camera, I suggested that, to start, he might try to recapture the moods of our first moments together. “I’m sorry, I cannot,” he replied charmingly. “I am not a good enough actor. I cannot play myself.”

Our session lasted three-and-a-half hours. From time to time we would stop to refresh ourselves with Cuban rum and Coke. “Tell me,” he said, “about photographing Helen Keller.” Then he asked about Shaw, Churchill, Camus, Cocteau, and mostly about Hemingway, whose home near Havana is a shrine. I was impressed that Castro – a revolutionary – should have made room in his life for these creative luminaries.

See some magazine covers that featured Karsh in their obituaries of Castro.