Behind the camera: Alberto Korda
Where: Memorial service for the victims of the 4 March 1960 explosion of the Belgian arms transport ‘La Coubre’
Photo Summary: Che Guevara in, ‘The most famous photograph in the world and a symbol of the 20th century.'” — Maryland Institute College of Art”
Picture Taken: March 5, 1960
On March 4, 1960, a terrific explosion rocked Cuba’s Havana Harbor. The French freighter La Coubre carrying Belgian munitions exploded. The initial explosion plus a secondary explosion killed over a hundred people and was immediately blamed on the CIA as an act of sabotage against the Castro regime. The next day, a memorial service was held that quickly turned into an anti-imperialist rally. Among the audience was a photographer, Alberto Korda. While Castro was giving one of his endless speeches, Che Guevara appeared near the front of the stage and looked over the crowd before moving out of sight again. In that short time Korda was able to snap one of the most iconic images of all time. Titled, Guerrillero Heroico, it would grow in fame as a symbol of the late 60s leftist protest movement. It would later be called, “the most famous photograph in the world and a symbol of the 20th century.” by the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Ernesto Guevara de la Serna
Scene from the 2009 documentary: Chevolution
Che Guevara, real name, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born June 14, 1928, in the city of Rosario, Argentina. His upper-class family was of mixed Spanish, Basque and Irish descent. Throughout his life, he suffered from crippling bouts of asthma. The treatments of the time gave little relief and it was perhaps this helplessness that inspired him to learn medicine, eventually graduating from the University of Buenos Aires medical school in 1953.
While he was a student, he would often travel throughout South America on the fly, with little or no money. He often used to write in a journal and to home about the poverty and injustice he saw in his travels. The written record of one of these journeys with his friend, Alberto Granado, was published as a book and eventually a movie by the same name, The Motorcycle Diaries. It was during these travels that he was given his nickname, “Che” because of his frequent use of the word. “Che” is the equivalent of “mate” or “pal” in English and is a regional word only used in Argentina and Uruguay.
While in Mexico, he met and became a member of Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement, which was devoted to the overthrow of the Batista’s Cuban regime. In 1956 when the movement tried to storm Cuba it was almost wiped out in its first battle with at about 20 rebels, including Che, surviving. Quickly retreating to the Mountains Castro’s movement grew and became more and more successful. In 1959 Castro seized power and Batista fled the country. In February of the same year, Che was declared Cuban citizen by birth and held a number of high ranking positions in the country including, head of the National Bank of Cuba and Minister of Industries. Che espoused a modest lifestyle and avoided the trapping of power but was never successful in government. Eventually, he sought to prove himself again in battle and embarked in 1965 in an effort to spread Cuba’s revolution, and to start as “many Vietnams” around the world as possible.
His first stop and first failure was in the Belgian Congo, later Zaire and currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he assisted African rebels including Laurent-Désiré Kabila. CIA support of Congo government forces and Kabila’s seemingly interest in women more than revolution where major factors in the revolt being crushed. Although Kabila would 30 years later force Mobutu to flee Zaire when he entered Kinshasa on May 20, 1997, seizing control of the country.
Che’s next stop was Bolivia where a series of disasters leads to his rebel army being surrounded and himself being captured by a CIA-organized military operation. Guevara was killed in an old schoolhouse in La Higuera near Vallegrande on October 9, 1967. He was photographed dead, his hands removed and his body secretly buried in an effort to prevent his corpse from becoming a shrine and himself becoming a martyr. It was these photos of Guevara’s handless corpse that the American’s wished to be the lasting legacy of Che. Yet it was another photo, one of him alive, taken 7 years earlier by Alberto Korda that he would be immortalized.
Alberto Korda (September 14, 1928 – May 25, 2001) whose real name is Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez was born in Havana (Early in his career he changed it to Korda in hopes that people would hear “Kodak”). The son of a railway worker he took many jobs before choosing photography. Behind the camera, he found he was able to achieve his main goal in life, women. His first wife, Natalia Menendez, became the first Cuban fashion model. She would later recount, “He loved three things in this world – women, rum and the Cuban Revolution.” During Batista’s rule in the ’50s, Korda lived a double life spending his days photographing models and nights smuggling guns and people as a secret member of the urban anti-Batista underground.
After Castro triumphantly ousted the Batista government, Korda became Castro’s photographer and also worked as a photographer for the Cuban daily newspaper, Revoluciòn. It was while on assignment for Revoluciòn at the La Coubre memorial on March 5, 1960, that he took pictures of Cuban dignitaries and famous French writers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Included in the film roll where shots of all the speakers and two pictures of Che’s brief appearance. The editor of Revoluciòn decided to only use his shots of Castro and the French writers, sending the Che shot back to Korda. Korda knew that Che’s image was powerful and made a cropped version to hang on his wall. Korda would say he chose the image because “there’s something about his eyes in the photo. A kind of mystery. His personality comes through. It’s always hung on my walls and I’ve given it to many people as a present.”
Enter Giangiacomo Feltrinelli
Passed out to the occasional friend and one or two Cuban publications Che’s image remained relatively unknown for 7 years until Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli entered the picture. The Italian was famous in Europe for smuggling the “Dr. Zivago” manuscript out of The Soviet Union. Feltrinelli had just come from Bolivia where he had hoped his fame would help in negotiating the release of a French journalist and professor Regis Debray. Debray had been arrested in Bolivia in connection with guerrilla operations lead by Che Guevara. Debray was able to tell Feltrinelli that Guevara was leading a doomed mission to overthrow the Bolivian government. The Italian publisher seeing a business opportunity in the publicity that would erupt if Che were killed had obtained the rights to publish Chè’s Bolivian Diary and asked Cuban officials where to get Guevara images.
Directed to Korda’s studio Feltrinelli presented himself and a letter of introduction from a high-ranking member of the Cuban administration. The document asked for Korda’s help in finding a good portrait of Che. Korda knew right away that his favorite image of Che fit the bill and pointed to the 1960 shot of Che hanging on the wall, “This is my best Che picture”. Feltrinelli agreed and ordered 2 prints. When he returned the next day to pick them up Korda told him that because he was a friend of the revolution he didn’t have to pay.
Che becomes iconic
Not long after this Debray’s prediction of Che’s doom became true when CIA agents and their CIA trained Bolivian military Special Forces hunted down and executed Che on Oct 9, 1967. The Cubans named the year after his death year of the Guerrillero Heroico. Korda’s daughter thinks this is why he titled his image,
After his death, Feltrinelli quickly released Che’s Bolivian Diary with the Korda shot on the cover and also a poster to promote the book. The poster went on to sell well over a million copies with no mention or credit given to Alberto. The Feltrinelli publishing house has argued the poster was only to promote Che’s Bolivian Diary book. Still, Korda never received any money or credit for the reproduction of the picture even though unlike others who used his image, Feltrinelli knew who was the actual photographer. It wasn’t until 1980 that it was revealed that the photographer was Korda.
While Feltrinelli made millions off Alberto’s work and even though he never saw a penny refused to bear any ill will towards the Italian. “I still forgive him, because by doing what he did, he made it famous.” Not that Korda was able to do anything about it the first place. Under Fidel, Cuba was not a signatory to the Berne Convention on intellectual property. Castro considered copyrights and intellectual property “capitalist bullshit”.
The Feltrinelli poster was not the only source of Alberto’s image. The Korda image was appearing in Europe before the Feltrinelli poster was published and is confirmed to be used in at least one article, a Paris Match magazine dating from August 19, 1967, about the whereabouts of Che.
Around this time Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick was also using Korda image as a basis for creating his own stylized posters.
… the first image I did of Che was psychedelic, it looks like he is in seaweed. His hair was not hair, it was shapes that I felt gave it an extra dimension. That was the image I produced for the magazine and that was done before he died and that is the important thing about that image…. For reference I was looking at a photograph that I had seen in the German ‘Stern’ magazine, a strong political magazine with left-wing views. It was a photo taken by ‘Korda’, but I didn’t know that at the time…. I did a number of graphic versions from the photo. The first was a square, b/w. The second that I re-photographed, had poster proportions, 20 x 30. The third image was the black on red, because I had decided to do leaflets … I re-drew the photograph, that’s what I call a line drop-out. I wanted it to look photographic but I drew it by hand, on Litho film … that was printed then in [two colors red and black] and I decided that the star should be yellow, so I painted that in with a magic
Fitzpatrick “wanted the image to breed like rabbits” and printed thousands of images giving them away to anyone, getting friends to pass them out and encouraging others to make their own versions. In Fitzpatrick’s and other’s artistic reproductions of the original photograph, it is interesting to note a small change in how Che is looking out toward the crowd. In the original photo, Guevara is looking to the crowd or the area in front of him whereas in other versions Che is looking toward the distant horizon. This small shift in the gaze makes it look like he looking towards the future in defiance. To a future when Che’s socialist dreams would become reality.
Around the time of the Fitzpatrick image, Pop Art was starting to make its way into the mainstream. The concepts of Pop Art blended perfectly with the style of the simplified Che poster. Thus Che image entered a new world, one of Art. Korda’s picture instead of being one of defiance towards the capitalist system, which Che fought against, has gone from a political statement to an artist’s muse to the very symbol of capitalism. The picture of Che has now been turned into a trendy marketing ploy, with his image selling everything from T-Shirts to wristwatches.
Korda puts his foot down
Silent while his Che image was reproduced, a million times over without ever getting any proceeds, he finally put his fist down when he saw that his photo was being used to sell Smirnoff vodka. In 2000, 40 years after he took the picture, he sued the advertising agency Lowe Lintas, and Rex Features, the company that supplied the photograph. “To use the image of Che Guevara to sell vodka is a slur on his name and memory,” Korda told the media. “He never drank himself, he was not a drunk, and drink should not be associated with his immortal memory.” He was able to affirm his ownership of the photo and won an out-of-court settlement of $50,000. He promptly donated the money to the Cuban medical system, “If Che were still alive, he would have done the same.” Korda’s daughter now owns and manages the Che image.
The copyright of this image is in dispute. The Korda estate run by his family insists that they own the copyright and have successfully sued various companies to either halt the use of the image or receive financial compensation. Korda sued vodka maker Smirnoff based on Che’s “moral rights”. This “moral rights” ruling is not valid in America, though many countries view it as an important part of their copyright law. Under the Berne Convention moral rights are included but Castro and Cuba never signed the Berne copyright laws. However, if Korda was alive he could sue in other courts but since he has died the moral rights have died with him as they aren’t transferable. As for the ruling that he owned the copyright, that was never decided upon in court as the Case of (Korda v. Lintas & Rex) was settled “sensibly and amicably” out of court. Also in Ariana Hernández-Reguant’s writings, Copyrighting Che: Art and Authorship under Cuban Late Socialism Public Culture it was noted that “There was never any official ruling on whether the depiction constituted a violation of copyright.” The author goes on to state that: ~ “Korda took the picture while working for a state-run newspaper, his actual property rights would be questionable under both Cuban and international law.”