'Guerrillero Heroico': The story behind Che Guevara's iconic photo

Today is Che Guevara's 95th birth anniversary

che-guevara-korda-wikimedia Alberto Korda's iconic photo of Che Guevara | Wikimedia Commons

Who would have thought that a picture taken on March 5, 1960, with a Leica M2 90 mm lens of a man who had been photographed by many, and in numerous poses, would go on to become one of the world's most famous photographs, and be reproduced on every imaginable medium more than any other picture, perhaps, in history.

On that day in March, former fashion photographer Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, who later changed his name to Korda, immortalised Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, popularly known as Che Guevara.

Revolutionary leader. Physician. Marxist. Guerrilla leader. Author. And later, pop culture icon. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was all these, and more. But even those who do not know much about Che's life or exploits, would probably know him from Korda's iconic photo.

On that day, in downtown Havana, a funeral march was held in memory of all the sailors and stevedores who were killed when the La Coubre, a French vessel carrying tons of grenades and munitions, exploded. The march was attended by the likes of philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Also present was Korda - a staff photographer for the Revolución, a newspaper first published by the Revolutionary Union.

Korda, when asked about the picture by The Times of London, said "I decided to watch from the crowd and used my Leica with its medium telephoto lens. I panned the podium, and suddenly Che moved forward into my camera. I took a picture, and immediately thought of a cover of our newspaper, turned the camera vertically, made another - and the moment had gone."

Korda later said that Che’s facial expression at that moment showed his characteristic stoicism and “absolute implacability”.

Though the picture – later titled 'Guerrillero Heroico' - did not go to print, it ended up in Korda's private collection and would not see the light of the day till 1967, when an Italian publisher and businessman Giangiacomo Feltrinelli came to Korda looking for a portrait of Che Guevara. He gifted Feltrinelli two copies of the print; the same print that Feltrinelli mass printed as promotional posters to promote Guevara's book after his execution by the Bolivian army on October 8, 1967. The picture first appeared as the cover of Feltrinelli’s publication of Guevara's Bolivian Diaries in 1968.

Interestingly, eight years after Korda's click, and a year after Che died, Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick did a stylised red-black-and-white rendering of 'Guerrillero Heroico', which, to borrow from modern vocabulary, went viral.

Che Guevara had, by then, become the face of the revolution and his image a symbol of rebellion and anti-imperialism. As a result, Feltrinelli prospered while Korda never got any royalties despite being the man behind the lens. His daughter Diana Díaz told CGTN America that her father did not receive a cent out of the photograph's popularity and he did not care about making profits either. The only thing, she said, that mattered to him was the fact that the image helped make Che famous.

The year before he died, in an interview for a documentary, Korda is quoted as saying, “I had the luck to take this photo and leave something for humanity. I didn’t leave great palaces, yachts, money in the bank, none of that. I left an example of my work during my time in this world.” 

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