HAVANA – It wasn't yet 10 a.m. but Juan Carlos Espinosa was sweating when he exited his Soviet-era Lada sedan in front of a photo studio in the middle-class Havana neighborhood of 10 de Octubre.
With temperatures in the 80s and humidity lying thick over the city, Espinosa wore a black T-shirt as he posed for a visa photo in front of a white sheet. Then, in a side room, Lian Marrero worked magic: digitally cutting away the T-shirt with a photo-editing program and pasting in a somber black suit with a neatly knotted gray tie.
Marrero hit print and Espinosa had a set of three professional-looking ID photos of himself in a suit that once belonged to a total stranger, or may have never existed at all.
Across Cuba and the world, tens of thousands of Cubans stare out of ID photos in elegant suits and dressy blouses they have never actually worn. Each imperceptibly altered photo is a tiny tribute to Cubans' finely honed ability to apply ingeniously homebrewed technical solutions to the problems of an island beset by economic scarcity.
In this case the problem is relatively minor: how to look one's best in official photos when tropical heat, lack of air conditioning and tight family budgets make it highly impractical to wear dressy clothes to the local photo studio. The answer: over-the-counter photo-editing programs and an informal sharing network of photo studio owners who trade images of suits and blouses among themselves.
Marrero, a 27-year-old electrician who runs a busy photo studio in the front room of the home he shares with his wife, said they had offered clients actual clothing to try on but people found it unappealing to wear clothes that others had been sweating in.
"We realized that people preferred the idea of digital suits," he said. "We ended up with three real suits and 10 digital ones," and eventually the shop got rid of the real clothes entirely.
The demand for altered photos has diminished as more Cuban and foreign government agencies equip themselves with the ability to take in-house digital photos. But many foreign consulates still require visa applicants to bring their own headshots, and since few explicitly prohibit altering photos, the digital suit business is still flourishing.
Espinosa, a 53-year-old mechanic, said he and his wife, Isis Lopez, had debated between a blue digital suit with a patterned tie and the black-and-gray combo they eventually settled on.
"Wearing a suit in Cuba isn't easy," he said. "Here, we have the ability to pick whichever one we want."
Both ended up happy with the result.
"I thought this one was more serious. I like the solid-color tie," Lopez said. "Yes, I like this combination."
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein