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Documenting The Panama Canal Expansion, One Photo At A Time

When the Panama Canal expansion was completed over the summer, tens of thousands of Panamanians celebrated the accomplishment at a ceremony.

The expansion represented economic opportunities for Panama -- in the form of tolls collected from increased shipping. It also created an opportunity for national pride. It’s also the reason that Port Miami has been expanded, in order for the post-Panamax ships to be able to dock here.

Photographer Andrew Kaufman has been documenting the entire process.

And all those years of work in Panama have gone into a book of photography called The Isthmus. WLRN's Luis Hernandez recently spoke with  Kauffman about why he spent more than a decade traveling back and forth to Panama to photograph this moment in Panama's history.

KAUFMAN: I wanted to spend as much time as I possibly could watching the men and women build this canal. It was mandated that 90 percent of the workers had to be Panamanian for the expansion. So I would go and spend weeks at a time there and unfortunately, or fortunately, I wouldn't get to spend as much time on the expansion as I would have liked to, which forced me to focus my efforts on Panama itself, which turned out to be a positive because I got to see the country change every time I would go back. I could visibly see the way the landscape, the city and the people were becoming more globalized or more cosmopolitan or even just changing the way that their everyday lives worked.

WLRN: How did you get such access into the construction sites?

In the very beginning I was afforded some access and that ebbed and flowed and ultimately I lost access for a little while, but then I regained it. It was never a certainty. I would go there and they'd say 'OK, on this day be there at this time,' and some days it was great. And then some other days would be like, 'Oh, we have to postpone; this thing happened or that thing happened.' So it was sort of a waiting game, but I persevered. I kept looking at the end goal. And that's how the project ultimately revealed itself to me and to the camera.

I got to spend time with the men and the women, the workers during their lunch breaks, during their water breaks, at the end of the day when they were cleaning up, during the middle of the night, when they were doing maintenance on their vehicles or all of these sort of aspects to this Herculean expansion project. It was the moment where you couldn't just cut and run. You had to realize, 'OK, they're changing the way the world's going to work in Panama.'

How about the workers? Were they open to having somebody stick a camera in their face especially when they're taking breaks?

I'm not paparazzi and I wasn't using a flash and I wasn't doing guerrilla photography. I was disciplined as a documentary photographer. That means that I would be there, I would get to know the people and photograph them in their daily life at work and at rest. And I was never asking them to do anything because I'm trying to capture this for historical posterity.

Credit Andrew Kaufman / The Isthmus
The Isthmus
Panama Canal expansion started in 2007 and ended in 2016 at a cost of more than $5.6 billion.

From your observations, has the country really gotten better? Have the lives of Panamanians really improved because of this?

I think so. There is now the first subway system in Central America outside of Mexico, and there are plans to build new lines for that Metro, and they're building new bridges now over the Panama Canal, which is going to help alleviate traffic congestion there. And logistically speaking, if you have goods that need to be transshipped, there are now bigger, more technologically-oriented ports that will help get your goods to the marketplace. For the average person life is better.

I know that there are a lot of opportunities in Panama for people who have a special set of skills in technology or in construction. You know they're building now the biggest airport terminal in the Americas. And it's a country on the rise.

I wanted to talk about the book and its unique setup because it's two books in one. You could flip it over and it's another book.

One side is about El Canal, the canal, and the other side of the book is about Panama.

What was behind the decision in doing that?

When I started my editing phase of the project I thought I was going to make two books. Then I thought about it from a consumer aspect and I thought let me see how I could differentiate one body of work from the other. The canal side of the book is only in black and white. I didn't want the color to distract from the essence and the subject. I wanted to tell that story in a very historical manner. You know, the photographers that I admire the most were the Farm Security Administration photographers of the Great Depression -- Walker Evans, Dorathea Lang, Arthur Rothstein, Gordon Parks --  and this is for me a homage to their work and their efforts.

But then at the same time as I was photographing in the canal, I was photographing all over Panama and sometimes the color is just impossible to ignore. And so when I was outside of the canal and I would experience and see this color I had to capture this bright, vivid Central American sort of plethora of sun and rhythm and all of these fantastic, the essence of the life there.

Credit Andrew Kaufman / The Isthmus
The Isthmus
A Panamanian shows how progress wasn't always easy. He used to go to a market near the water in San Felipe. It was replaced with a Cinta Castera.

You do this whole thing with film and we live in this very digital world. Is that a regular practice for you or was it just for this project?

Well, I prefer film. I personally think it's definitely a superior medium for the way I work and the way I think and how I like my work to be presented. It's just an easier process for me. I'm used to it. 

What is it about that process that you love?

When you have it on a piece of film it's there. I have all the film I ever shot in my career. It's all in my office and it's all filed properly and I know how to find it and it's not going anywhere. With digital you have to maintain those hard drives. And it's just a lot more work and  I'd rather spend time in the field photographing than staring at a computer.

For me photography is like a dance and if I'm having to look at my feet during the dance then I don't think I'm dancing well. I think when you work with a digital camera you're having to look at your feet to make sure that they're in the right place.

Early in the process (of documenting the expansion) did you get the sense of the enormity of this project?

I think this [photo below] was in 2006.  I stood on a hill which overlooks the Pedro Miguel locks and you had to basically envision what it would look like from there. Until that first ship, on June 26, came into the lock, and I was standing at arm's length to it and seeing just how spectacularly humongous that ship is, you can imagine what it's like. But when you are there and see it, it just puts it in a whole other level.

Credit Andrew Kaufman / The Isthmus
The Isthmus
Before the expansion, only ships carrying 5,000 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) could pass through the canal. Now vessels with nearly three times the carrying capacity — around 14,000 TEUs — can pass through.