Che Guevara’s posthumous reputation enjoyed two advantages. He died young and Alberto Korda took his photograph. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Che’s death and it seems scarcely possible that his iconic status could become any greater.
It has been called the 20th Century’s Mona Lisa. Alberto Korda’s photo of Dr Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the Argentinian born co-leader of the Cuban Revolution, is probably the most reproduced photograph of all time. It is more than the de facto likeness of the man – It is, to use that overused word, ‘iconic’ but not just in the sense of being “a person or thing regarded as a symbol of a belief, nation, community, or cultural movement” (Collins Dictionary) but in the religious sense of the word – a representation of a Saint. Indeed in parts of Latin America some venerate him as Saint Ernesto. In communist Cuba, school children begin the day with the exhortation to “Be Like Che”. In the consumerist West, he, or rather Korda’s image of him, is understood as a symbol of dissent. It has many of the attributes of successful branding – it is instantly recognisable, it represents something, but something malleable enough that people can mould to fit their own beliefs. And crucially for its reproduction and wide dissemination, the ability to exert copyright control over it was compromised.
The photograph was taken by Korda in 1960 at a memorial rally for victims of an explosion the Cubans blamed on the CIA. The picture (one of just two he took of Che that day) was not used in the newspaper report of the event. But Korda recognised its power and hung a copy on his wall, titling it “Guerillero Heroico” (Heroic Guerrilla Fighter).
Given the way the image became a commodity and a brand of radical chic, it is perhaps telling and a little ironic that before the Cuban Revolution, Korda had enjoyed a career as a fashion photographer – and enjoyed the lifestyle that went with it. The way he chose to print the picture with a tight crop, slight rotation of the head and in high contrast, would not look out of place in a fashion shot. This treatment also turned a news photograph into something that could readily be made into a logo or a stencil. But none of this is to take anything away from the extraordinary pathos and intensity of the expression Korda caught on his subject’s face. The fame of this particular image can, as with the Mona Lisa, overshadow its quality as a portrait.
Like other saints, Che was martyred. He was executed in Bolivia in 1967 trying to organise a peasant uprising. A rally to mark his death was held in Havana’s Revolution Square. Cuban leader Fidel Castro addressed the crowd. Behind him a massive backdrop featuring Korda’s image hung from the Ministry of the Interior where Che had worked. Today, the building has a stylised steel outline of Che’s face. That it is so instantly recognisable is a testament to the graphic simplicity of the photograph. On the building next to it hangs a similar structure. This is the face of fellow revolutionary leader Camilio. This too was based on one of Korda’s photographs, but is graphically much less of a success. Soon after his death, Che’s diaries of his days in Bolivia were published by Italian radical Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Korda had given the publisher a copy of his photograph, but when Feltrinelli produced posters of the image they carried his name as owning the copyright not Korda’s.
But it was a pop art poster version produced by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick that appeared on bedroom walls and streets all over the world. Years earlier the artist had had an unlikely meeting with Che and Che had told him of a surprising link with Ireland. Fitzpatrick was a 16-year old barman in Kilee, County Clare, when the Comandante walked in and ordered a whisky. His flight to the USSR had been diverted in fog to Shannon Airport and in conversation Che explained his father’s name was Ernesto Guevara Lynch whose grandmother was from Galway.
San Francisco’s Summer of Love in 1967, gave way to the Prague Spring and Paris Rebellion of 1968. All over the world there were demonstrations –against Americans in Vietnam, or the British in Northern Ireland, or against capitalism itself. The grievances being aired may have been disparate, but Korda’s Che, cropped, rotated and contrasty, and especially when printed in two colours by Fitzpatrick, could inspire and represent them all. Even in 1968 it was being seen by some as a cliché. Its commoditisation was complete when another pop artist, Gerard Malanga, produced a silkscreen forgery which he tried to sell to a gallery as being by Andy Warhol. Warhol who understood this sort of thing better then anyone, offered to authenticate it on the condition he could keep the profits.
Like Korda, Jim Fitzpatrick had always freely let his image be used by left wing political causes, but in 2011 he announced his intention to copyright his version and give the rights to Guevara’s family to stop the “crass commercialism” the image was being used to promote. This was not entirely straightforward, as he didn’t own the rights to use Korda’s picture which his picture was derived from.
Che still sells a lot of t-shirts. But writer Susan Sontag spoke of the potential positive ramifications of utilising Che as a symbol, positing:
“I don’t disdain the impact of Che as a romantic image, especially among newly radicalised youth in the United States and Western Europe; if the glamour of Che’s person, the heroism of his life, and the pathos of his death, are useful to young people in strengthening their disaffiliation from the life-style of American imperialism and in advancing the development of a revolutionary consciousness, so much the better.”
Post modern hero
It has been said that Che fills the role from the 1960s onwards that Lawrence of Arabia filled for an earlier generation. Like Lawrence, it’s not hard to find contradictions and unpalatable truths about Che (executing opponents, supporting repression, saying things that today appear politically incorrect) but still his reputation seems unassailable. He was handsome, wild and died young so it’s no surprise that he is viewed like a rock star – one who never lived long enough to make a bad record. And like many a rock star, Che has become so much part of the common culture that corporations he as a Marxist would have opposed, have tried to appropriate his image to shift product. Lazy advertising copywriters reached for Che whenever their brief included the word “revolutionary”.
Korda was largely powerless to stop his image being used by anyone for any purpose. Ironically in overthrowing the existing order, Cuba was not a member of the International Copyright Convention until 1997. When Smirnoff Vodka used the teetotal Che to advertise alcohol, Korda contacted the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in Britain. They helped help him sue Smirnoff’s advertising agency and the picture library, Rex Features, for infringement. They settled out of court and Korda donated the settlement to Cuban child welfare organisations. He died a year later in 2001 in Paris for the opening of an exhibition of his work. His family continue to try and control the image’s use.
In 2012, Mercedes Benz changed the star on Che’s beret to their three point logo and managed to annoy not just sympathisers of the Cuban Revolution, but Cuban-American exiles. Republican Florida Representative Mario Diaz-Balart criticised the company for using the image of a “cold-blooded killing machine who talked about using an atomic bomb to kill all capitalists”. A spokesman for the company blamed the word “revolutionary” appearing in an announcement about new technologies for suggesting the image to whichever hireling was putting the PowerPoint presentation together. Perhaps they should have listened to Cuban historian Edmundo Desnoes when he said:
“Che’s image may be cast aside, bought and sold and deified, but it will form a part of the universal system of the revolutionary struggle and can recover its original meaning at any moment”.