Photographs capture the power of the Panama Canal and its people

A portrait of a welder working the expansion of the Panama Canal.
A portrait of a welder working the expansion of the Panama Canal. Andrew Kaufman

Nosotros si construimos El Canal.” “Yes, we built this canal.”

Those words were crudely spray painted on a Styrofoam board about 8 feet wide in the lobby of the Agua Clara control tower on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Panama Canal’s newly completed $5.5 billion expansion of the Panama Canal. The workers on El Canal had made a declaration: Panama won’t be ignored.

There was a mandate that 90 percent of the workers on the expansion must be Panamanian, very different from more than 100 years ago, when workers came from around the world to build the Panama Canal.

What all this mean for the average consumer on the East Coast of the United States, and in Miami, in particular? Almost nothing that they would notice. However, 90 percent of goods are shipped by sea around the world. That’s a staggering statistic. Ports up and down the East Coast, plus the Gulf of Mexico, have been modernizing in the face of globalization and the canal’s modernization. The construction of the PortMiami Tunnel, which give cargo trucks faster access to the highways, and the dredging of Government Cut to accommodate the huge Panamax ships and that has been an environmental concern.

But that’s only half the story. As a photographer, I wanted to dig deep. I wanted to see this tiny Central American country known as the “Crossroads of the World” and what it would do to modernize the canal and itself at the same time.

I first traveled to Panama in 2004. My first adventure there was a month long. I saw El Canal, walked the city streets and visited indigenous tribes. Inspired by photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks, who, working for the Farm Security Administration, documented the America of the Great Depression, I knew that I needed to document, on film, this historic moment of the expansion of the Panama Canal.

It was an audacious goal.

I found myself deep in the expansion site, watching truck after truck move the earth, the landscape blown to bits by the master blaster. The canal was not the only thing that evolved. Avenida Balboa would soon become a highway, the Cinta Costera, and the Red Devils buses — Los Diablos Rojos — would be decommissioned in favor of the Metro.

The changes were palpable. And that was the other half of the story to tell. The goal was to show what Panama, not only the canal, looked like. Whether it was at the Friday night fights or the Diablo Y Congo’s festival in Portobelo or the procession of the Virgen Del Cobre by the local fishermen. The canal is the one thing that unites all Panamanians. The two go together, they are forever intertwined.

On June 26, 2016, I stood on a stairway of the locks at Cocoli and watched as the Cosco Shipping Panama make the first successful transit of the expanded canal. After the throngs of well wishers had gone home, I made the final photograph of the ship sailing into the Pacific Ocean. It was the perfect ending to a project into which I had poured my heart and soul.

Now, nearly 12 years after my first visit to Panama, it’s amazing to think how hard a task this was with the modern equipment that is taken for granted. The difficulties and obstacles 100 years ago when the canal was built must have been incomprehensible when more than 25,000 people died. Eight died during the expansion, which took two years longer than anticipated.

My fascination with Panama started as a child. I always imagined what the landscape would be like. Now, I know.

Andrew Kaufman is a Miami-based photographer. He will present his book, “The Isthmus,” at 7 p.m. Jan. 12 at Leica Lounge, a 372 Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. For more information, go to TheIsthmus.org