How Che’s Iconic Photograph Became Famous

 

Alberto Korda holds up a Cuban bank note, which features the iconic image produced by the photographer in 1960.

Alberto Korda holds up a Cuban bank note, which features his iconic image of Che Guevera

Very few photographs have shaped the world as has the timeless snapshot of Che Guevera taken by photographer Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, known as Korda on March 4, 1960. Very few photographs even have such an alluring and dreadful narrative of death surrounding it.

The photograph in question is instantaneously familiar, the brooding stare of Che Guevara recognizable, a cultural icon like “the Nike swoosh or McDonald’s golden arches,” notes NY Times writer Michiko Kakutani, who elucidates on the ubiquitousness of this particular image by suggesting that Che’s stare is at turns “pensive, determined, defiant, meditative or implacable — as difficult. . . “to put a finger on” as the Mona Lisa’s smile.”

The image has, in the past 50 years, become the feature of silkscreens, watches, chains, cigarette lighters, coffee mugs, wallets, backpacks, mouse pads, beach towels and condoms. From a speech by Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez to promote his own agenda, to merchants using it to sell air fresheners in Peru, snowboards in Switzerland, and wine in Italy, Che’s image is pervasive. The Victoria and Albert Museum called it “the most reproduced image in the history of photography.” 

The pervasive nature of Che’s iconography is emblazoned in every aspect of the world’s revolutionary, political, and commercial landscapes, and traverses the boundaries of resistance to embrace capitalist claims with such ease that critics of the revolutionary are left to feel both bewildered and uncomfortable regarding its appeal, very frequently.

Almost 55 years after it was introduced to the world, we can be assured that Che’s image is here to stay. 

And yet, the photographer behind the image received almost no credit, and did not gain even a paltry sum of compensation for the fame associated with his image, and when one examines the magnitude to which the image was exploited, the matter becomes one of true humility in the face of utter global humiliation and rejection for an artist’s authority and ownership over his work. 

That the proponents and producers who gained most from Che’s photograph being virally popularized and reproduced are largely absent from any popularized narrative of its success, showcases how pervasive the faceless anonymity of capitalism truly is. These can serve as clear points to ask ourselves about the justification of employing copyright laws in the age of over-sharing. The anonymity and mystery surrounding the image adds to its allure, indubitably, as the story at hand has so many layers of bloodshed and betrayal that it is quite shocking that this image, the penultimate example consumptive mentality focused on franchising even the most difficult of ideas, which easily excuses copyright violations in the favoring of  viral anonymity of the internet vis a vis legislative idealizations to create content laws in the digital age.

The irony of Korda’s success is how Revolucion, for which Korda was working on the piece for, did not even print the image until five months after it was shot.

It remained relatively unknown until a full seven years later, in the months before Che Guevara’s death in 1967, raising the question as to why and how the proliferation of the media took force with such whirlwind force, and indeed, how it spiraled into a global icon.

 

Jim Fitzpatrick’s Che

In order to understand the story, we must travel back to the day the iconic photograph was shot.

For the Love of Revolution

 

It was an overcast day, March 4, 1960, the day after 100 victims who had died in the explosion of French steamship La Couple, and Che Guevera was attending a politically charged mass funeral in Havana, Cuba, which had been called for by communist leader Fidel Castro.

Castro had declared public demonstrations and funerals to mark the passing of the deceased, and those who were gathered at the funeral protested in mass demonstrations that drew thousands.

In this setting, Korda, traditionally a fashion photographer reporting for the magazine Revolucion, found the Argentine revolutionary Guevara flanked by the likes of Simone De Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, who he captured on on two quick shots on the end of a 90 mm roll of film on his Leica camera, whilst on assignment.

The particular day is even more significant, for it is on this day that Fidel Castro delivered his popular “Patria o Muerte” slogan (“Homeland or Death”) for the first time, as he stood on a platform giving a fiery speech to thousands of people attending the funeral-demonstration, with Che in the background.

Korda later said that Guevara had such an intense gaze that he was taken aback for a moment, but not enough to keep him from snapping two quick shots, one vertical, the other horizontal, before Che again disappeared behind the dignitaries in the front row. Korda titled the work, “Guerrilero Heroico,” or “Heroic Guerrilla Fighter.”

The photo “was not planned, it was intuitive,” said Korda.  He cropped it from the left side of the horizontal shot the profile of another person, and from the right side the inevitable tropical palm tree.

It was printed as a file photo some five months later.

Passed out to the occasional friend and published in a few small Cuban publications, Che’s image remained relatively unknown for the next seven years. 

Korda enlarged it and hung it in his studio together with a portrait of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and family photos.

A Tale of Combined Interests in Spreading the Revolution

By 1967, some newspapers in Cuba endorsed by Fidel Castro was circulating Korda’s Che image in the months shortly before Che’s death, according to Stephen Casey’s “Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image.” Che’s image was popularized, and it is unclear whether Korda ever gave permission for its usage, as Cuban laws forbade him to profit from the circulation or eventual dissemination of the article. 

Advisors around Che said that he had had a nervous breakdown before his final departure from Bolivia in 1965, during which time he had a 48 hour meeting with Fidel Castro, slammed the door on the way out,  and went to Bolivia. Castro denies such an ending to their relationship, given the strong connections between the two communist leaders, who shared the ideology of a domino effect overtaking Communist nations in Latin America

It is widely known that after completing his medical studies at the University of Buenos Aires, Guevara first became politically active in his native Argentina and then in neighboring Bolivia and Guatemala, but his friendship with Castro has roots in a much more deeply manifested history. The two met for the first time  in 1954 while in Mexico.

Guevara became part of Fidel Castro’s efforts to overthrow the Batista government in Cuba from the very start.

He served as a military advisor to Castro and led guerrilla troops in battles against Batista forces. When Castro took power in 1959, Guevara became in charge of La Cabaña Fortress prison. (It is estimated that between 156 and 550 people were executed on Guevara’s extra-judicial orders during this time, a fact that is highly unpalatable for those who encounter the violence in spreading Che’s philosophy of revolution for the first time.

In April 1965, before parting for Bolivia, Che purportedly wrote a farewell letter to Castro, which adds to the claim that Castro and Che parted on decent terms, and it was because of these terms that the Communist leader later would have felt inclined to press for Che’s words to be immortalized: 

I state once more that I free Cuba from all responsibility, except that which stems from its example. If my final hour finds me under other skies, my last thought will be of this people and especially of you. I am grateful for your teaching and your example, to which I shall try to be faithful up to the final consequences of my acts.

This letter, coined on April 1, 1965, provides the haunting words of Che providing the rhetoric of his own immortalization when he says:

I have always been identified with the foreign policy of our revolution, and I continue to be. Wherever I am, I will feel the responsibility of being a Cuban revolutionary, and I shall behave as such.

Indeed, Castro seems to have collaborated with Feltrinelli in ensuring that Che’s legacy is immortalized in an incomparable manner.

The Benefactor of Revolutionary Thought

Whatever Castro’s reasons may have originally been, Castro sold the rights to Che’s Bolivian diaries, recovered shortly before the revolutionary’s death on October 9, 1967, to Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, and assisted him by providing the Korda image to Feltrinelli, as an iconic symbol to portray on the cover of the Bolivian diaries, which were posthumously published. 

Feltrinelli was politically disillusioned by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the brutal suppression of the revolution there. Feltrinelli apparently gradually became more radically left-wing. He was fascinated by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and their form of revolution, and visited Cuba in 1964, and, in 1967.

Feltrinelli’s visit to Bolivia in 1967 was preceded by his urging of US President Lyndon Johnson to take an active role in protecting freedom of speech in Bolivia, following the arrest of Feltrinelli’s friend Regis Debray in a strongly worded letter earlier in the Spring: 

Today, it is the case of Régis Debray, a young French philosopher who is the author of A Revolution Within The Revolution. Debray was arrested by the Bolivian police at the end of April, 1967 mainly because he wrote this book. As the publisher of Mr Debray, I ask you, Mr President, to exert all your powerful influence for the immediate release of Régis Debray.

The US government, chose not to respond to Feltrinelli.

On April 19, 1967, Debray had been arrested with the Argentine Ciro Bustos and the Anglo-Chilean photographer George Roth.

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, Italian publisher

Their capture gave the Bolivian military proof that Che Guevara was in Bolivia. According to Feltrinelli’s son Carlo, “Fidel felt that a campaign of solidarity was urgently required to draw international attention to the Debray case. The Cubans proposed that my father personally follow the trial scheduled to be held in the coming weeks.”

Upon his arrival in Bolivia, Feltrinelli was questioned by the CIA, and held in their custody for a couple of days. 

On August 19, the Italian popular press ran the story. La Notte of Milan ran the headline, “Publisher Feltrinelli Vanishes in Bolivia”. Through the intervention of Italian President Saragat and foreign minister Fanfani intervened the Bolivian authorities were pressured to expel Giangiacomo Feltrinelli from Bolivia after one day and two nights in jail.

In May 1972, the Bolivian Minister of the Interior, Antonio Arguedas, was to issue a statement where he claimed that Feltrinelli attempted to offer the Bolivians a ransom of $50 million for Che in 1967, in the event of his capture. The CIA said that the deal was out of the question, and Feltrinelli’s son Carlo, whilst writing about his father’s memory in  the newspaper Guardian, says the request to publish Che’s writings arose from none other than Fidel Castro himself:

“Late that spring, an urgent invitation arrived from Havana. When Feltrinelli landed, he learned that Castro wanted to give him and Maspero (another publisher) a copy of Che’s Bolivian diary, which had been smuggled out of La Paz by Arguedas: this was Operation “Aunt Victoria”. Holed up in a little villa in Vedado, Feltrinelli translated the text in a couple of nights. The diary was to come out in Italy in 1968, and the rights were passed on with no charge to the publishers of half the world. The cover of the Italian edition bore the legend: “The proceeds of this publication will be donated entirely to the revolutionary movements of Latin America.” Questions were asked in parliament. Feltrinelli printed thousands of posters from the negative of the famous photo by Alberto Korda and had them hung in his bookshops.

 

A diplomat in the Cuban embassy, Andrés Del Río, was bemused when Feltrinelli handed him a suitcase full of banknotes: “The proceeds.” Del Río did not know what to do with all that money, and so the suitcase was transformed into a bank deposit amounting to more than half a million Swiss francs. The name of the account? The functionary still remembers it: “Río Verde”.

The Diario in Bolivia (‘The Bolivian Diary’) of Che Guevara was indeed first published in Italy. It would rapidly become a best-seller.

Guevara died in hiding in the mountains of Bolivia mere weeks before the book went into print. Posthumously, and evoking the restless martyr of resistance that Guevara is known for, it may have been a combination of timing, the mass production that was espoused by the pop art ideology most popular during this time frame, or just the fact that the most recent and freshest source of knowledge of Guevara was delivered alongside an image that was immensely palatable, but overnight, Korda’s depiction of Che reached the limelight in a manner that it has never quite gone off of. The Bolivian diaries featured an image of Korda’s Che on the cover, and with this, the immortalization process behind the photograph was set into motion.

Unanswered Questions about Korda’s Copyright Legacy

It is unclear in existing records whether Feltrinelli acquired permission to use Korda’s photograph, or whether the Communist leader Castro himself authorized usage of the image. The famed portrait that Korda some time later dubbed “Heroic Guerrilla,” was reproduced in thousands of versions in honor of Che, who fought in several Latin American and African countries before dying in a Bolivian highland hamlet in 1967.

Within six months of Che’s assassination however, Feltrinelli, an astute businessman, sold over 2,000,000 posters bearing the famous image on Che’s Bolivian diary.

Whether any Swiss bankers ever saw it fit to aid in spreading the wealth of Che’s legacy back into the hands of the photographer who inspired these images, is highly unlikely.

Arguably, Che presents a chic and palatable version of the more gruesome struggles with revolution that led. The production of Che’s image is wrapped up in a culturally produced consciousness, through the embracing of using pop art imagery in the style of Warhol, to perpetuate the spirit of change that the youth of the era aspired to, as can be seen by the fact that this image has long been used to showcase the global nature of human struggle, through the upward gaze of a 31 year old revolutionary known for being cutting edge, and resorting to violence himself in order to express his points. 

Meanwhile, Korda,  who died in 2001, was unable to collect royalties from the sales of any of the products associated with his photograph of Che. For a full 30 years of the image becoming wildly popular, until 1997, when the Castro government signed the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, an international copyright treaty. Korda sued the vodka company Smirnoff in a lawsuit in 2000, which automatically regranted him much of his copyright over the painting. 

Korda’s roll of film when taking the iconic Che image.

An ad campaign for Smirnoff Vodka finally drew the quiet photographer out from his silence and led him to rapidly file suit against the makers in the year 2000, which Korda’s estate, led by his daughter, has won posthumously an amount of $50,000 and a reinstatement of his copyright

Korda received no compensation or royalties from his image that all of us have encountered at least once- a great show of how his Marxist ideologies, for better or for worse, threw his most iconic work into the limelight whilst ensuring the limits of his own fame. One can’t help but think about the Orwellian assertion that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” into this rhetoric, but the troubling questions of profitability, cultural acumen and ideological claims overlap in an uncomfortable manner without providing any easy answers. 

In the meantime, the image of Che lingers on, freed from its deeply philosophical seat by those keen to capitalize on even the vaguest vestige of palatable rebellion that it thus inspires. Che is ”a figure who can constantly be examined and re-examined,” says Jon Lee Anderson, author of ”Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.”

”To the younger, post-cold-war generation of Latin Americans, Che stands up as the perennial Icarus, a self-immolating figure who represents the romantic tragedy of youth,” Anderson adds.

”Their Che is not just a potent figure of protest, but the idealistic, questioning kid who exists in every society and every time.”

 

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “How Che’s Iconic Photograph Became Famous

  1. That was well written piece re. the origin of that iconic photograph of Che Guevara. However, there are, in my opinion, two points that I believe need some elaboration. The first is the post-modernist take on that iconic photograph, particularly by Warhol where using the vehicle of multiple reproductions Warhol drains (empties) the photograph of all significance. Lyotard (JF) would have pleased with Warhol’s oeuvre. After all it was Lyotard that promoted the collapse of meta-narratives. Warhol achieved that (and much else, besides) by the multiple reproductions of this icon. Beaudrillard, once again, rings true: “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.”. More is the pity. BTW, liked your piece on Chittagong. I was privileged to live there for fifteen (15) years of my life. All the best.

    • Wow, thanks so much for this wonderful feedback.. I agree, diluting the image does not lend to the integrity of Korda’s work, and showcases how even a serious revolution can be franchised as a pop culture truism.

      Thank you for appreciating my piece. I would love it if you shared my blog with your friends, if you find it interesting.

      Best,
      Raad

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