Motorcycle mechanic Sergio Morales' garage in Havana is an apt representation of today's Cuba. Black-and-white photographs of the repair shop reveal cracked cement and a tangle of spliced wires leading to an air compressor. The paint on the walls is peeling, and the grease-stained hands of one of the mechanics are symbolic of the grit and ingenuity needed to stave off total decay in a country always on the brink of financial collapse.
"It's [the idea of] things patched up and fixed," photographer Phillippe Diederich says of the images in "AHarlista!" -- an exhibit on view at Florida Atlantic University. Before the Communist revolution in 1959, Havana was a playground for rich Americans and Europeans. But after a U.S. embargo was enacted, Cuba's economy stagnated, and Havana -- like other cities -- has been holding together its crumbling buildings and roads with makeshift repairs ever since. The same is true for the Harley-Davidson motorcycles owned by a group of avid bikers.
"Harlistas" painstakingly craft makeshift parts to keep their machines running. In the mid-'90s, Diederich spent a total of six months with them, often starting his day at Morales' garage at 7 a.m. "They were already sweating, covered with grease," he says of the mechanics. "The only time they don't work is when it's dark or when the electricity is out."
Or when they're riding their motorcycles. Some of Diederich's photos feature Harleys cruising along the Malecón, Havana's harborside promenade, and he once photographed a wedding parade that included a number of motorcycles.
Diederich, age 34, is now a photographer at the Houston Press, a New Times publication. During much of the '90s, however, he freelanced for the New York Times in Miami and worked with other national and international publications. He was assigned to some of the decade's biggest stories: the U.S. invasion of Haiti, presidential elections in El Salvador, and the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. But while shooting the "AHarlista!" photos, he was able to dig deeper than he ever had before.
"I wanted to get very high quality images as far as technical aspects: tone, detail, textures," says Diederich. "The grime under the nails, the grease from working all day -- it's a labor of love."
The project on Cuban motorcycle culture arose from a series of photos he shot of the private businesses sprouting up in Havana when free enterprise was first allowed in the mid-'90s. Among the business people he met was a screen-printer, who makes T-shirts silk-screened with logos. "And some of the T-shirts said 'Harley,'" Diederich says, "and I asked about that because I had heard of Harley people being in Cuba."
He was put into contact with Morales. Harley owners push their bikes to his shop, says Diederich, "and they spend the whole day putting it together, and don't even charge for all of the time and effort.
"All they do is talk, eat, sleep, and live Harleys," he continues. "It's not like they are gang members. They don't even understand what that means in association with Harleys. They just see it as a great machine."
Diederich is proud of the work he did in Cuba. He says it was a refreshing change after years of taking pictures of conflicts and disasters. While Cuba is rife with conflict, the Harlistas' stories help strike a balance, he says, adding: "When I finished I felt like I had completed something that was fulfilling."
-- John Ferri
"!Harlista!" remains on view through March 14 at the Ritter Art Gallery at Florida Atlantic University, 777 Glades Rd., Boca Raton. Admission is free. For information call 561-297-2966.