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legacy of an image

June 18, 2009

Che hardly ever sat for a bad photo–even in death. But of all surviving photographs of him, one in particular stands out: the head-and-shoulders portrait of a bearded, longhaired, 31-year-old Che, wearing a bomber jacket and his trademark beret emblazoned with the comandante star. Casey makes this image the central concern of Che’s Afterlife, and in the book’s opening chapter he offers a vivid re-creation of the “frozen millisecond” when the photo was taken. The date was March 5, 1960; the location a spot near Havana’s Colón cemetery; the occasion a public funeral sponsored by the revolutionary government. The previous day a French munitions ship delivering arms to Cuba had mysteriously blown up in Havana harbor, killing scores of people and wounding hundreds. CIA involvement was suspected but never proven. Che, who had been at a meeting nearby in downtown Havana when the ship exploded, rushed to the docks and helped provide medical aid to the wounded and the dying.

On March 5, Che was standing on the speaker’s platform while Castro harangued the crowd. He was gazing upon the assembly when photographer Alberto “Korda” Díaz Gutiérrez snapped a picture of him for Revolucíon, the official newspaper of Castro’s 26th of July Movement. At the moment the shutter clicked, Che was hunched inside his bomber jacket against the unseasonable cold of that March day. The tension in his posture, combined with his piercing gaze (“angry and grieved” was the impression that Korda had of his subject’s mood), made for a formally dynamic image. Citing art historian David Kunzle, Casey notes the “aesthetic magnets” of hair, beard and star, all of which both “steer the eye’s attention” when looking at the photograph and “provide reference points for derivative art,” allowing for simplified forms of “mass reproduction as a two-tone icon.”

Korda knew he had taken a good picture, but his editors failed to agree: the photograph did not run in the following day’s Revolucíon. Over the next few years it would enjoy only a few low-key appearances in Cuban periodicals. Eventually, someone in a position of influence recognized the image’s iconic possibilities. Shortly before Che’s death, the photo–by then known as “Guerrillero Heroico”–was made a centerpiece of official Cuban propaganda. It adorned the hall at an international gathering of artists and writers in Havana in May 1967 and later that summer was displayed at the founding meeting of the Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS). Korda’s “Guerrillero Heroico” became routinely coupled with Che’s famous slogan calling on the international left to “create two, three…many Vietnams.” In the aftermath of Che’s death, the Korda photo, or various graphic derivations, became a staple of radical newspapers and left-wing poster art in North and South America and Western Europe. And in an ironic post-1960s development, the image took on yet another life–this time as a marketing device, used to sell everything from air fresheners to condoms to an ice cream bar called Cherry Guevara.

Michael Casey, bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires and a frequent correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, seems especially to relish the commercial taint of recent appropriations of Che’s image, the “commoditization of an anticapitalist rebel who opposed all that his hyper-commercialized image now represents.” As Casey sees it, the issue is not that Che’s image is without continuing political appeal but that it has too many diverse meanings to be the symbol of any coherent ideology. As one would expect, the Korda photo remains “the symbol of choice” for contemporary Latin American rebels, “wherever regional activists give the middle finger to the U.S.-backed free market system.” It has also shown up in recent years as movement iconography in Palestine, Nepal, East Timor and many other locales caught up in radical insurgencies. But its appeal is not limited to conventional left-wing movements; it has been embraced, for instance, by “U.S.-backed Christian rebels in Sudan who are fighting a Muslim regime.” He argues shrewdly that the contemporary meaning of Che’s image ultimately isn’t about communism or anti-imperialism: it’s about attitude, and it’s about sacrifice. “A man, a teacher, lays down a code of personal conduct from which to build a just society, a utopia, and then proceeds to live and die according to it.” (review of Che’s Afterlife:Legacy of an Image)

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