The Exhibition
  • The story of an image
  • Alberto 'Korda' Diaz
  • Who was Che Guevara?
  • Origins
  • Protest
  • Identity
  • Emblem
  • Pop
  • Saint
  • Revolutionary

The story of an image

The portrait of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Heroic Guerrilla, is the most reproduced image in the history of photography. Taken in 1960, at the highpoint of the Cuban revolution, it can be seen on posters and T-shirts and souvenirs all over the world.

Guevara was born in Argentina in 1928. Turning to radical Marxist politics when he saw the widespread inequality in Latin America, he joined Fidel Castro’s movement to overthrow the Cuban government. He then continued his own campaign in the Congo and later Bolivia, where he was captured and killed in 1967 as a result of a covert CIA operation.

Although there is debate about the true nature of Che’s activities, he remains the most charismatic revolutionary leader of modern times. Korda’s famous photograph first deified Che and then turned him into an icon of radical chic. Its story – a complex mesh of conflicting narratives – has given Heroic Guerrilla a life of its own, an enduring fascination independent from Che himself.

Image information
Bolivian Diary, Ernesto Che Guevara, Cuba, 1968 © Instituto del Libro La Habana


This exhibition was organised by UCR/ California Museum of Photography.
It was made possible with additional support from Centro de la imagen, Mexico City, the Anglo Mexican Foundation and Zonezero.com


Alberto 'Korda' Diaz

Born 1928 Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, Havana, Cuba. From 1946–50 he studied commerce at the Candler College, Havana, Cuba and went on to the Havana Business Academy. In 1956 he founded the Studio Korda on Calle 21 Vedado in Havana, having begun working full-time as a photographer. From 1959–62 he was a newspaper photographer for the Cuban daily paper Revoluciَn, and personal photographer to Fidel Castro, whom he accompanied throughout the early years of the revolution. On 5 March 1960 Korda took the famous photograph of Che Guevara, Guerrillero Heroico. In 1961 Korda became a founding member of the Uniَn de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (UNEA). From 1968–80 he was photographer for the Department of Marine Research with the Science Academy of Cuba.

During his life time Korda had over fifty solo exhibitions in Cuba and throughout the world, in countries as diverse as Norway, France, Germany, Spain, Mexico, the USA, Chile and Argentina. Korda’s work has also appeared in numerous collective exhibitions throughout the world including Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography after the Revolution, shown in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Illinois. His famous image of Che, Guerrillero Heroico, is the subject of a book and this exhibition, touring internationally. During his lifetime Alberto Korda won numerous awards and was the subject of many documentaries. The most recent film made about his life, Kordavision (2005), directed by Hector Cruz Sandoval, has been shown at film festivals across the US and Europe and is currently under consideration for nomination in the documentary category for the 2006 Oscars.

Korda died in Paris at the age of 72 on 25 May 2001. He was buried in Havana on 29 May 2001.

Image information
Korda in his Home, Marcos Lopez, Cuba, 1996 © Marcos Lopez


Who was Che Guevara?

  • 14 May 1928 Ernesto Guevara Lynch is born in Rosario, Argentina, into a liberal, middle-class family. He is the first of five children and suffers from asthma.
  • 14 June 1928 is the date widely accepted as Guevara’s birthday. A sympathetic doctor falsified the birth certificate to conceal the fact that Guevara’s mother was already pregnant with him at the time of her marriage.
  • 1947 Guevara studies medicine at the University of Buenos Aires.
  • 1951–2 Guevara travels in Argentina. He meets the lepers at Cordoba and goes to Chile, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Miami where he is turned back by the US immigration authorities. In Peru he works in the San Pablo leprosarium. These experiences have an impact on the development of his political thought, later described in his journal, Motorcycle Diaries.
  • 1953 Guevara completes his medical degree and travels to Bolivia and Guatemala. After supporting the resistance against the coup in Guatemala, Guevara flees to Mexico City, works in the General Hospital and teaches on the medical faculty of the National University (UNAM).
  • 1955 In Mexico, Guevara meets Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary in exile.
  • 1956 Castro forms the 26th of July Revolutionary Movement. Guevara joins the group as a medic. The group of 82 land on the coast of Oriente Province (on the east of Cuba). On 2 December they launch an attack against the Batista regime, resulting in the death or capture of most of their comrades; 12 survive, including Castro, his brother Raul and Guevara. They retreat to the Sierra Maestra mountains and stage continuous attacks against the Batista government.
  • 1957 Guevara is made commander of one of the five guerrilla columns.
  • 1958 Guevara leads the guerrilla advance from Oriente Province through government lines to central Las Villas Province. Guevara's column takes the strategic provincial capital of Santa Clara in the centre of Cuba on 28 December. The road to Havana is now clear.
  • 1959 Batista flees the country on New Year's Day. Castro's 3,000 guerrillas have defeated a 30,000-strong professional army. Guevara enters Havana on 2 January. A new interim government is formed and is recognized by the US on 7 January. Castro assumes the position of prime minister on 16 February. Guevara is declared a Cuban national. He marries his second wife, Aleida.
  • 7 October 1959 Guevara is appointed Director of the industrialization programme of the National Agrarian Reform Institute. The agency administers land reforms and the expropriation of American-owned businesses and agricultural estates.
  • 26 November 1959 Guevara is made President of the National Bank of Cuba.
  • August 1960 Time magazine cover story calls Guevara ‘Castro's brain’.
  • 5 March 1960 Alberto ‘Korda’ Dيaz takes iconic image, Guerrillero Heroico.
  • October 1960 to February 1961 Guevara tours socialist and communist countries, including Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and China.
  • January 1961 The US officially breaks diplomatic relations with Cuba.
  • 23 February 1961 Guevara is appointed Minister of Industry in the Cuban government, stepping down from his position as President of the National Bank.
  • 17 April 1961 1,300 Cuban exiles, supported by the CIA and operating from a base in Nicaragua, attempt to invade Cuba at a southern coastal area called the Bay of Pigs.
  • 1962 US extends the trade restrictions on Cuba. The 'Cuban Missile Crisis' flares in October when the US Government discovers that the Soviet Union is setting up launch sites in Cuba for long-range ballistic missiles.
  • 1964 Tensions within the Cuban government over Guevara's economic policies continue and are heightened by his enthusiasm for carrying the revolution beyond Cuba into other parts of Latin America and to Africa.
  • March 1964 Guevara represents Cuba at a UN conference on trade and development. He travels to Beijing, Paris, Algeria and Moscow.
  • 1965 Guevara, still on the move, travels to the Congo, Guinea, Ghana, Dahomey (Benin, West Africa), Algiers, Paris, Tanzania and Beijing. In February, while addressing the Tricontinental Conference at Algiers, he hints at his disillusionment with the established socialist countries.
  • April 1965 Guevara tells Castro he is relinquishing all his official positions and his Cuban nationality. In July travels to the Congo with a group of Cuban volunteers to foment a rebellion.
  • 3 October 1965 Castro publicly reads a farewell letter written by Guevara in April. ‘I feel that I have fulfilled the part of my duty that tied me to the Cuban revolution in its territory,’ the letter says. ‘And I say goodbye to you, the comrades, your people, who are already mine. Other nations of the world call for my modest efforts. I can do that which is denied you because of your responsibility as the head of Cuba, and the time has come for us to part.’
  • 1966 Guevara returns to Cuba in March, but quickly travels on to Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia, where he becomes a leader of a communist guerrilla movement attempting to overthrow the Bolivian military government.
  • 1967 The guerrilla band has some success but receives little support from local people. Never numbering more than 50 men and one woman, the guerrillas are soon outmanoeuvered by about 1,800 US-trained and CIA-armed Bolivian troops.
  • 8 October 1967 Guevara is wounded and captured near Vallegrande, in the mountains of central Bolivia. He is carried to the village of La Higuera, 30 km southwest of Vallegrande, and placed under guard in a schoolhouse. Around noon the following day, Guevara is executed with four gunshots to his chest. His last words are reported to be, ‘I know you have come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.’ Guevara is dead at the age of 39. Following the execution, Guevara's hands are removed so that his identity can be confirmed by fingerprinting.
  • 11 October 1967 Guevara’s handless body and the bodies of six of his executed colleagues are secretly buried near the airport at Vallegrande.
  • 18 October 1967 Castro delivers a eulogy for Guevara to nearly a million people assembled in Havana's Plaza de la Revoluciَn. Castro states that Guevara's example and ideals will be an inspiration for future generations of revolutionaries. ‘They who sing victory over his death are mistaken,’ Castro says. ‘If we want to know how we want our children to be, we should say, with all our revolutionary mind and heart: we want them to be like Che.’
Postscript

  • July 1995 A Bolivian general reveals the location of Guevara's grave.
  • July 1997 Guevara's body is exhumed and returned to Cuba. The thirtieth anniversary of his death is celebrated across Cuba.
  • 2000 Time magazine names Guevara as one of the 100 most influential people of the twentieth century. ‘Though communism may have lost its fire, he remains the potent symbol of rebellion and the alluring zeal of revolution.’
  • 2004 In a bid to promote tourism in Bolivia the 'Che Trail' (la Ruta Che) is officially opened in the central highlands where Guevara spent his last days.
  • 2004 The film The Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Brazilian Walter Salles, brings a new generation to see a fictional version of the young Che.

Today The image of Korda’s 'Che' has become iconic, globally for sale. Guevara has been subsumed by the capitalist consumer culture he despised.

Origins

On 5 March 1960, President Fidel Castro called a funeral and mass demonstration to honour more than 100 Cubans killed in a suspicious harbour explosion. At the time, Che was Minister of Industry in the new government, and Korda was Castro’s official photographer.

During Castro’s speech, for a few seconds – no longer – Che Guevara came into view. Korda snapped just two frames of him before he disappeared from sight.

His photograph enshrines Che as a mythic hero. Taken from below, the revolutionary leader with searching eyes and resolute expression becomes larger than life. A perspective that dominates the imagery of social realism, it bears an irresistible aura of authority, independence and defiance.

The image, though published in Cuba in 1961, only became widely known after Che’s death.

Image information
Heroic Guerrilla, Alberto Korda, Cuba, 1960 © Korda Estate and Diana Diaz


Protest

Korda’s image of Che rapidly became a defining symbol of agitation propaganda – agitprop – graphics.

With its uncanny ability to convey complex ideas in a way that is easily understood, it was taken up by a broad spectrum of political and social movements. Emblazoned on posters, banners and signs, it declared outrage, allegiance, honour and sacrifice.

In contrast to the increasingly slick visual language of commercial advertising, the protest poster provided an alternative means of communication, with Che in the role of unofficial spokesperson for countless issues.

Image information
From left to right: Smash Capital Now, UK, 1970. Courtesy of Center for the Study of Political Graphics, Los Angeles; Che Si, Roman Cieslewicz, Poland/ France, 1967-8


Identity

Heroic Guerrilla appears in both private and public spaces, on bedroom walls and street corners. It is an image that speaks to people of many different backgrounds, but has a particular resonance in Latin America.

Che never saw himself specifically as Argentine or Cuban, but Latin American. His intention was to ignite political change throughout the continent by awakening the solidarity of the indigenous peoples.

Particularly in the 1970s, many of the posters that feature the Korda image conflate Guevara and the maps of Central and South America. With the topography of Latin America depicted as a single mass, without national boundaries, Che represents the dream of union and liberation.

Image information
Jornada del Guerrillero Heroico (Day of the Heroic Guerrilla), Luis Balaguer for Continental Latin American Student Organisation Cuba, about 1971. Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, Los Angeles


Emblem

One of the most ubiquitous incarnations of Korda’s Che can be found on T-shirts and other clothing.

The combination of his youthful face, unkempt good looks, leather jacket and military beret have made Guevara a potent embodiment of guerrilla chic.

To wear Che’s image today can be a declaration of radical defiance or a vague statement of cool, depending on the place and context.

Image information
From left to right: Opening at the Saatchi Gallery, London, Martin Parr, UK, 2003 © Magnum Photos/ Martin Parr; Kevin Williams, New York City, Steve Pyke, USA, 2005 © Steve Pyke; Fernando Ruben Brodsky, My Brother, was Kidnapped on August 14th 1979 and is still Lost, Marcelo Brodsky Argentina, 2003 © Marcelo Brodsky

Pop

Many of the aesthetic treatments of Korda’s image derive from the Pop idiom of the 1960s, which promoted the banal and the populist to the status of art.

The counter-culture values present in Korda’s Che have become a symbolic distillation of Pop’s egalitarian, in-your-face presentations. The image has moved into the realm of caricature and parody, while also standing for issues as diverse as world debt, anti-Americanism, Latin-American identity, and the rights of gays and indigenous peoples.


Image information
From left to right: ThatChe, Tony Allen and Ofar Quarson for anyoldicon.com; American Investment in Cuba, Patrick Thomas, Spain, 2002 © Patrick Thomas; Walls ice cream wrapper and additional Walls/ Magnum material, Australia, 2003 © Unilever Corporation; Pinball Jerry, Barry Lewis, UK, 2005 © Barry Lewis

Saint

Half-jokingly, yet also reverentially, the guerrilla rebel who gave his life for his beliefs is frequently compared with Christ and his suffering. That one took up violence as a means of ending oppression, while the other espoused unconditional love and tolerance is part of the visually and ideologically arresting paradox of this pairing. Often the layering of the two identities is done knowingly with humour and irony.

Image information
Meek. Mild. As If, Chas Bayfield and Trevor Webb for Churches Advertising Network (CAN) UK, 1999 © CAN


Revolutionary

Che defined a revolutionary as someone who will fight against injustice, wherever he or she may find it. Following his death, the Korda image, with its bearded face and comandante’s beret, became an icon of the cultural and militant Left in both Latin America and Europe.

Today, however diluted or adapted, it still evokes counter-cultural ideals and multi-faceted interpretation. It remains a beacon of revolution, both contemporary and nostalgic.

Image information
Che , Ken Sprague, UK, 1970s © Ken Sprague Estate