MIAMI (AP) – William Castellanos snapped a black and white photo in August 1994 of a girl crouching on a wooden raft, surrounded by solemn men.
Her large brown eyes stare intently at the camera and a few wisps of her dark hair float in the breeze. Moments after the art student took the photo, she was pushed out to sea.
Twenty years after President Fidel Castro encouraged a mass exodus from the island, the image – the others he took of the 35,000 Cubans who took to the sea in makeshift rafts – still trouble him.
“For me, this was a very difficult photographic record,” Castellanos said. “Maybe I have the only, or many the last picture of that person.”
Did the rafters make it, or did their flimsy vessels break apart in the turbulent, 90-mile Florida Straits?
Cuba Marked Fidel Castro's Birthday With Photo Exhibit
Best Sports Pix Of The Week
Best Pix Of The Week
Cuba's Rich Percussion Scene Being Taken Over By Women
Poor Cuban immigrant becomes high school genius
Cuba's Loudest Citizens Rock Out In The Documentary 'Hard Rock Havana'
Rubio Addressed The Trade Embargo With Cuba
Alan Gross' Wife Fights For Release Of Husband Jailed In Cuba
Obama Honors Mandela, Shakes Hands With Cuba's Raul Castro
He especially wondered about the girl.
Cuba's communist economy was in crisis in August 1994. The Soviet Union had collapsed, and the only way to get supplies was on the black market. He had just two rolls of black and white film left. But when he saw his neighbors carrying a raft to the sea, he rushed home to grab his Nikon F-3.
"I told myself, 'I have to make pictures of this,'" he recalled. "I have to make a document."
He captured a group of young men wading into the water on inner tubes covered in tarps. Childhood friends and neighbors building boats with thin slabs of wood and nails. Men and women carrying their boats out to sea on the tops of old Chevrolets, or balanced on outstretched arms above their heads.
And then the girl — staring back unflinchingly from a large raft of wooden planks.
He thought of his daughter, the long hours they would spend staring at each other when she was a baby, how she looked curiously into his eyes and at his camera.
They exchanged no words. He felt like he was intruding.
He took the photo and left.
For two months, Castellanos could only see the negatives. Printing paper was too expensive. A friend at a cartography institute later scrounged up some material. He dropped the paper into the developing tray, and the images appeared.
The girl with brown eyes gazed fearlessly at him again.
Castellanos eventually left Cuba and became a photographer in Argentina and the U.S. He lives now in Miami. For years, he was reluctant to show the images.
Then he realized that the only way to learn their fate would be to put them on display.
People began approaching him.
One identified a blonde woman, smiling as she sold peanuts in paper cones to the rafters, as her sister — alive and well in Cuba, she said.
Castellanos created a website, http://www.exodus94.com, including numbered close-ups of the 85 people he is trying to locate.
Five others were identified as people who were rescued after their raft collapsed 11 miles from shore. They remain in Cuba today. A woman photographed waving goodbye to the rafters found her picture online, and wrote to say she lives in Spain. Two others, photographed in a truck, helped the rafters but didn't join them. One is in Cuba and the other in Mexico.
The girl remains a mystery.
"Maybe today she is a woman," Castellanos wonders. "Maybe she has children. I don't know where she is just now, but this is a face that haunted me."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.