I will bet you have seen this portrait image of Che somewhere before. Entitled Guerrillero Heroico (Heroic Guerrilla Fighter), this now iconic photograph of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda in 1960. The Maryland Institute of Art called it “the most famous photograph in the world and a symbol of the 20th century”. It has been variously reprinted, painted, digitized, embroidered, woven, tattooed, silk-screened, sculpted and drawn on nearly every imaginable surface in countless countries around the world.
The Actual Photo
On 5 March 1960, President Fidel Castro called a funeral and mass demonstration for the 100+ victims of the La Coubre freighter explosion (sabotage attributed to the CIA) as it was unloaded in Havana harbour.
During Castro’s speech, Che Guevara, then Minister for Industry, appeared on the podium and Korda shot just two frames of him before he moved out of sight.
This original photo was then cropped to remove the palm tree to Che’s right, and the image rotated slightly. His look; grief, resolution, determination gave the photo a weight and a timelessness, and so it was only natural it became the most famous of all the portraits taken of him. The Korda photo was used in a few Cuban publications, but it remained relatively unseen for another 7 years, until in 1968, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli printed Che’s Bolivian Diary, using this image on the cover.
Guevara was born in Argentina in 1928. While completing his studies as a medical doctor he journeyed through South and Central America and was shaken by the widespread poverty, hunger and disease he encountered in different countries. He turned to Marxism after witnessing in Guatemala, the overthrow of the elected president Jacobo Árbenz by the CIA. Deciding to help overturn what he saw as the capitalist exploitation of Latin America by the United States, he met up with Fidel Castro, at the time mobilizing forces in Mexico, and joined their 26th of July Movement with the aim of overthrowing the US-backed Cuban dictator Bautista, and removing US influence on the island.
After successfully commanding several battles and assisting to seat Castro as President, Che served in several ministerial positions before deciding his life’s work as a revolutionary was not done.
In 1965, Che renounced his life and citizenship in Cuba and left his second wife and 4 children to fight in Bolivia, where he was captured and killed on October 9th, 1967 as a result of a covert CIA operation.
The Symbolism of Che
Statues of Che in Cuba depict him in a manner of poses, but the one that surprised me the most is one where he is carrying a small child. I can’t ever remember seeing poses like that of anyone anywhere else in the world, other than religious statues. But this is part of the legend of Che: fighter, father, protector (the traditional tenants for machismo), and possibly also saint.
As I travelled around Cuba, contrary to my expectations I found that Fidel encouraged this symbolism of Che. He understood Che’s charisma, and after Che’s death, allowed it to flourish and symbolize the independence Cubans had fought for, and would need to lean on in the ongoing aftermath of the US embargo.
Everywhere you go in Cuba, you will encounter Guerrillero Heroico painted somewhere as a reminder of the country’s history and struggles, and the way they came through victorious against all odds.
Jonathan Green, director of the UCR/California Museum of Photography, has speculated that “Korda’s image has worked its way into languages around the world. It has become an alpha-numeric symbol, a hieroglyph, an instant symbol. It mysteriously reappears whenever there’s a conflict. There isn’t anything else in history that serves in this way”. Source
Today this image of Che can be found around the world; t-shirts in Guatemala, woven wool bags in Oaxaca, pottery mugs in Argentina, murals in El Salvador and clay magnets in South Africa.
Che Guevarra was executed in Bolivia at only 39 years of age, however his revolutionary legacy and the resultant reminder his image provides to those fighting for their rights around the world – and especially in Latin America – has remained eternal.