One of the most recognisable (and merchandised) images in the world has been that of the late South American revolutionary, Che Guevara. The image is of his face. He is staring sternly ahead with a pensive look. The look is further enhanced by the presence of an unkempt beard, a light moustache, and an equally unkempt flock of hair, upon which sits a black beret.
According to Michael J. Casey’s book The Legacy of an Image, ever since the late 1960s, this image has been reproduced by revolutionary outfits, political parties, painters, rock bands and advertising agencies at the same frequency as famous Disney characters are reproduced!
Whereas popular Disney or mainstream film characters are created so that they could also be merchandised for additional profit, Che’s image was once just a forgotten photograph taken by a Cuban photographer. What’s more, unlike Mickey Mouse or Iron Man, the image was of an actual man.
As Casey mentions in his book, even though Che’s image still sells big (on various merchandise) in markets across the globe, it is now being consumed by a generation most of whose members are not quite sure who the man is behind the charismatic face.
Casey suggests that the traction of the image has helped it age beyond the ideology it was once directly associated with. Che Guavara was a sensitive young Argentinian, studying to be a doctor when he was smitten by Marxism and an urge to overthrow US-backed dictatorships in South America through guerrilla warfare and revolution.
Che Guevara’s mass-produced image has moved from being a revolutionary icon to a capitalist commodity.
In the mid-1950s, he teamed up with Fidel Castro, a robust opponent of Cuban dictator, Batista, and both led a two-year guerrilla war in the jungles of Cuba against Batista’s army. In 1959, Castro’s rebels were able to topple Batista and (on Che’s urging), impose communist rule in Cuba.
Che was a leading member of Castro’s revolutionary regime until in 1965 when he quietly left Cuba to spark similar revolutions elsewhere. He fought alongside communist rebels in Central Africa, and then, in 1967, arrived in Bolivia to launch an insurgency. He was captured by CIA backed by Bolivian forces and executed. Che’s last words were addressed to the soldier who had been sent to execute him. He reportedly told the soldier: "I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”
The excellent 2010 documentary Chevolution, suggests that the first time the famous Che image appeared in public was in the shape of a large poster pasted on a wall in front of which Castro stood on a podium, speaking to thousands of Cubans, mourning the death of Guevara.
A year later, in 1968, the same image began appearing on posters during violent student uprisings in Europe and the US. By 1969, the image had also made its way on the walls of campuses in Asia and Africa.
But nobody knew who had taken the photograph. Trisha Ziff in her book, Revolutionary & Icon, writes that it was only in 1980 that one was made aware of the fact that the image was part of a series of photographs Alberto Korda, a Cuban photographer had taken in 1960.
Korda was a flamboyant and highly paid fashion photographer in pre-revolutionary Cuba. When revolutionary violence erupted in Cuba, Korda began photographing ordinary Cubans. A photograph that Korda took of a sombre three-year-old girl from a poor family clutching a piece of wood as if it were her doll, made him a supporter of Castro’s movement.
Korda decided to remain in Cuba after the revolution and became Castro’s personal photographer. In March 1960, he took dozens of pictures at a huge rally in which Castro was the main speaker. As Korda’s camera remained largely focused on Castro, at one point it moved to the right of Castro. There stood Che, staring pensively into the crowd.
Korda returned to his studios to develop the photographs. He sent all of them to various publications within and outside Cuba. None of them used the Che photograph.
However, six years later, in 1967, when Che had left Cuba and his whereabouts were unknown, a French monthly published Korda’s photograph. By 1968, the photograph had become an iconic image of resistance.
In 1969, a young Irish artist, Jim Fitzpatrick, gave the image its two-tone look. He simply put his signature at the bottom and did not copyright it. Many decades later, when his version had become the most reproduced design of Korda’s photograph, Fitzpatrick told Trisha Ziff that he did not copyright his design because he was a huge admirer of Che and wanted his image ‘to be reproduced like mad!’
Fitzpatrick’s version was inspired by the Pop Art genre of the period, and till the late 1970s, was largely being used by left-wing political outfits and radical youth. It was also in the 1970s that the Che image began appearing in Pakistan. One begins to notice it being mentioned in magazine articles of the era about how students were putting up Che’s posters in their hostel rooms.
Interestingly, the posters were not being printed in the country. According to a 1973 feature in the now defunct Urdu monthly, Al Fatah, Che posters (based on Fitzpatrick’s design of Korda’s photo) were being brought into Pakistan from Europe and also from Kabul in Afghanistan, and Kolkata, India.
After reaching a peak in popularity in the mid-1970s, the presence of the iconic Che image began to recede from the early 1980s onward – especially when populist leftist ideas began to erode.
It almost vanished when the Cold War began to fold in 1989-90. But the image suddenly bounced back when, in 1992, it was used on the T-shirts and an album cover of the then up-and-coming radical hard rock band, Rage Against the Machine.
I remember watching small stickers of the image beginning to appear on Rickshaws in Karachi in 1993. However, even though the image would once again begin to be used by radical left outfits and regimes (such as by the Hugo Chevaz government in Venezuela in 2000s), it became increasingly commoditised and commercialised.
By the late 1990s, it was being reproduced by cigarette, alcohol and fashion brands, and being put on merchandise such as coffee cups, shirts, ties, even underwear!
Incensed by the way his image had begun to be used, Korda began to sue large commercial brands who were using it. In 2000, Korda successfully sued Smirnoff. An out-of-court settlement saw Korda receiving $50,000 from the company, which he donated to Cuba’s healthcare system. He told reporters, ‘Che would have done the same.’
Korda continued to successfully sue large corporations (under international ‘moral laws’ which are a kind of copyright laws), but could only slow down the apolitical reproduction (for commercial purposes) of his image. He passed away in 2001 but his daughter continued his crusade to keep the iconic image rooted in Che’s ideals.
However, eventually, she had to settle for simply gaining the right to decide on what products the image could be used.
The image continues to be reproduced on a variety of merchandise more than ever now symbolising capitalist cool, more than communist defiance.