Chevolution tells the story of one of the most iconic, and most reproduced, photographs in the world. Alberto ‘Korda’ Díaz Gutiérrez’s Guerrillero Heroico image of Che Guevara is instantly recognisable yet it has become largely divorced from its origins, and perhaps even Guevara’s. It is a surprise to discover, for example, that despite the revolutionary’s posed stance, the photograph is in fact a snapshot, taken by Korda at a memorial service for the victims of the La Coubre explosions in Havana in 1960. As Korda’s daughter explains in the film, the photographer was able to capture just two frames before Che disappeared from view. One of these was the shot that has gone on to be described as ‘the Mona Lisa of photography’.
Using the photograph as a centrepiece, Chevolution explains the political situation in Cuba at the time it was taken. Through both eye-witness accounts and commentary from historians, we learn of Castro’s awareness of the power of photography as a tool for propaganda, and of how all the major photographers in the country began taking images of the revolutionaries for the newspapers. Korda turned away from fashion, where he had made his name, and dedicated his life to the revolution, travelling with Castro and taking some of the first shots of Guevara. His background in fashion photography played its part in the story of his most famous photograph, however, for it led Korda to make an expert crop of the original image, removing extraneous details such as a male figure and the leaves of a plant that intrude on the edges of the scene. The epic qualities of the image were immediately enhanced, with the crop releasing the photograph from a particular time and place and moving it into the arena of portraiture or art, rather than photojournalism.
Its potential wasn’t immediately recognised however, even by Korda. According to his daughter, when it was first taken he saw it as “just another shot” and it wasn’t even published in the newspapers at the time. Consequently there is some uncertainty as to when it first appeared though it quickly began to be used as a semi-official portrait in articles on Guevara after he disappeared in 1965, and use of the shot rocketed after his death (where photography once again enhanced his mythical status, with the Christ-like pose seen in photos of his dead body adding to the idea of him as a martyr). From this point in the film we see the slow separation of Korda’s image from the reality of its subject.
Even before Che’s death the possibilities of the image were recognised, with the photograph published as a poster by the Milanese publisher Feltrinelli and distributed across Europe just before he was killed. At this stage the first signs of how both the photograph and Korda may go on to be exploited are exposed, with Feltrinelli not crediting the photographer on the poster (apparently this was typical of the times, however) and Korda receiving no money from sales.
In many ways, the story of Korda’s photograph then goes on to be a salutary tale of the complicated issues surrounding copyright law. Following Guevara’s death, it quickly became a symbol of political activism, with both his style and determined expression chiming perfectly with the tumultuous events of the end of the 1960s. While this usage of the photograph may have met with both Korda and Che’s approval, it wasn’t long before the financial possibilities of the image were recognised and it began to be appropriated by those with more capitalist than revolutionary goals.
It is dizzying to see in the film the various iterations of its use over the last few decades, with Che’s face appearing on everything from mugs and T-shirts to bikinis.
As Cuba had no copyright laws at the time, Korda could only look on as his image changed shape and meaning far away from any reality of Guevara and his ideals, and make a lot of other people an awful lot of money. By the late 1990s though he did gain copyright for the use of that one image, which since his death in 2001 has been managed by his daughter. She argues strongly that the decision to invoke copyright of the photograph was solely due to it being used to promote inappropriate products, such as alcohol and cigars. But this is quietly questioned by the filmmakers when items such as badges and hipflasks are shown to have been approved by the Korda estate, and when it is revealed that the Guevara family’s request that the photo be nationalised and used as a free image representing Cuba was contested in court by the Korda estate, which won. The film also intelligently explores the fact that the copyright-free nature of the image will have helped in its proliferation through interviews with artists Jim Fitzgerald and Shepard Fairey (who is currently caught in his own copyright mire, with the photographer of the image used on his hugely popular Obama poster).
All of these contradictions also contribute to the enduring nature of Guerrillero Heroico. As Chevolution documents, over the 50 years since it was taken it has achieved the ability to slip across political, social and cultural borders and has grown beyond either Korda or even Guevara himself. While for some it will always conjure up the violence that Che perpetrated in the name of revolution, for many it is simply a mainstream image representing mild rebellion. Instead of retaining the complexity of a human being, Che Guevara the man has been elevated to a myth. It seems hard to believe that this status would have been achieved without Korda’s image, and what Chevolution demonstrates above all is that when it comes to myth-building, having the correct image is crucial.
Chevolution, directed by Luis Lopez and Trisha Ziff, is showing daily at the ICA in London until October 7. It features interviews with, among others, Gerry Adams, Antonio Banderas, Tom Morello and Shepard Fairey. ICA, 12 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AH. For times and ticket prices, see ica.org.uk, or call the box office on +44 (0)20 7930 3647