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.
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.
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.
“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”.