Guerrillero Heroico was photographed on March 5, 1960 by Cuban photographer by Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, known better as Alberto Korda, and is among the most iconic images of the 20th Century. Even those who have never heard of Ernesto Che Guevara are familiar with this ubiquitous famous image of him.
Guerrillero Heroico (English: “Heroic Guerrilla Fighter”) is an iconic photo of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara wearing his black beret taken by Alberto Korda. It was taken on March 5, 1960, in Havana, Cuba, at a memorial service for victims of the La Coubre explosion and by the end of the 1960s turned the charismatic and controversial leader into a cultural icon. Korda has said that at the moment he shot the picture, he was drawn to Guevara’s facial expression, which showed “absolute implacability” as well as anger and pain. Years later, Korda would say that the photo showed Che’s firm and stoic character. Guevara was 31 at the time the photo was taken.
Emphasizing the image’s ubiquitous nature and wide appeal, the Maryland Institute College of Art called the picture a symbol of the 20th century and the world’s most famous photo. Versions of it have been painted, printed, digitized, embroidered, tattooed, silk-screened, sculpted or sketched on nearly every surface imaginable, leading the Victoria and Albert Museum to say that the photo has been reproduced more than any other image in photography. 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”.
As a lifelong communist and supporter of the Cuban Revolution until his death, Alberto Korda claimed no payment for his picture. A modified version of the portrait through the decades was also reproduced on a range of different media, though Korda never asked for royalties. Korda reasoned that Che’s image represented his revolutionary ideals, and thus the more his picture spread the greater the chance Che’s ideals would spread as well. Korda’s refusal to seek royalties for the vast circulation of his photograph “helped it become the ultimate symbol of Marxist revolution and anti-imperialist struggle.”
However, Korda did not want commercialization of the image in relation to products he believed Guevara would not support, especially alcohol. This belief was displayed for the first time in 2000, when in response to Smirnoff using Che’s picture in a vodka commercial, Korda claimed his moral rights (a form of copyright law) and sued advertising agency Lowe Lintas and Rex Features, the company that supplied the photograph. Lintas and Rex claimed that the image was in the public domain. The final result was an out of court settlement for USD $50,000 to Korda, which he donated to the Cuban healthcare system, stating “if Che was still alive, he would have done the same.”
After the settlement, Korda reiterated that he was not against its propagation altogether, telling reporters:
“As a supporter of the ideals for which Che Guevara died, I am not averse to its reproduction by those who wish to propagate his memory and the cause of social justice throughout the world, but I am categorically against the exploitation of Che’s image for the promotion of products such as alcohol, or for any purpose that denigrates the reputation of Che.”
Passed out to the occasional friend and published in a few small Cuban publications, Che’s image remained relatively unknown for 7 years. The photograph was then acquired by wealthy Italian publisher and intellectual Giangiacomo Feltrinelli in 1967. Feltrinelli had just returned from Bolivia where he had hoped his fame would help in negotiating the release of French journalist and professor Régis Debray. Debray had been arrested in Bolivia in connection with guerrilla operations led by Che Guevara. As Guevara’s eventual capture or death appeared to be imminent with the CIA closing in on his whereabouts, Feltrinelli acquired the rights to publish Che’s captured Bolivian Diary. At this time Feltrinelli asked Cuban officials where to obtain Guevara images and was directed to Korda’s studio where he presented a letter of introduction from the government. The document asked for Korda’s assistance in finding a good portrait of Che. Korda knew right away that his favorite image of Che was perfect and pointed to the 1960 shot of Che hanging on the wall, saying that the photo was the best of those he had taken of Che. 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 did not have to pay.
Upon his return to Italy, Feltrinelli disseminated thousands of copies of the poster to raise awareness of Che’s precarious situation and impending demise. Later in 1968 after his October 9, 1967 execution, Che’s Bolivian Diary with Korda’s photo on the cover was released worldwide. Feltrinelli also created posters to promote the book, crediting the copyright to (c) Libreria Feltrinelli 1967 (in the lower left hand corner of the image) with no mention of Korda. By this time, Korda’s image had officially entered the public consciousness. Alberto Korda later expounded that if Feltrinelli had paid him just one lira for each reproduction, that he would have received millions. However, Korda also expressed that he forgave him, because through his actions, the image became famous.