© CHRISTOPHER NASH
On October 9, 1967, a Bolivian army communiqué from La Paz announced that Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary comandante turned itinerant guerrilla, had been hunted down by soldiers and killed in battle. The New York Times responded editorially, and with evident satisfaction, that if the report proved true, "as now seems probable," then "a myth as well as a man has been laid to rest." It was not the Times's most accurate prediction.
Photographs of Che's lifeless body soon appeared in newspapers around the globe, putting to rest doubts about his death. Perhaps the most famous image was one taken by Freddy Alborta, showing Che's corpse being displayed to the press by Bolivian army officers. Yet controversy over the circumstances of Che's death continued to brew. Was he killed in combat, or in cold-blooded execution? The latter. Did the soldiers who killed him amputate and preserve his hands and then cremate the body? His amputated hands were smuggled to Cuba in 1970, and his bones were discovered by a Cuban forensic team in Bolivia in 1997 and returned to Cuba for state burial.
In Che's Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image, Michael Casey reports that local peasant women who paraded by Che's corpse on October 9 with the permission of triumphant Bolivian officers "surreptitiously clipped locks of hair from Che's head, saving themselves a future talisman." A few weeks later, the journalist and novelist Jose Yglesias, reporting on Che's death for The Nation, indulged his readers with a different sort of memorabilia. Yglesias wrote that like the relics of St. Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth-century Carmelite nun and mystic, Che's hands "may well be with us for a long time to strengthen the nonreligious but barefoot Order--like Saint Teresa's stoical Carmelites--of the guerrillas of South America." The mythic appeal of the slain revolutionary, known to many today in Latin America as "San Ernesto," has only grown in subsequent years. "Unwittingly, the Bolivian military delivered the world a lasting and sympathetic picture of the man they'd hunted down," Casey writes. "They gave it a crucified Che." Indeed, John Berger and other art critics have argued that Freddy Alborta's photo of Che's corpse bears a startling resemblance to Renaissance depictions of Jesus Christ at the moment he was brought down from the cross by the Romans.
Che hardly ever sat for a bad photo--even in death. But of all surviving photographs of him, one in particular stands out: the head-and-shoulders portrait of a bearded, longhaired, 31-year-old Che, wearing a bomber jacket and his trademark beret emblazoned with the comandante star. Casey makes this image the central concern of Che's Afterlife, and in the book's opening chapter he offers a vivid re-creation of the "frozen millisecond" when the photo was taken. The date was March 5, 1960; the location a spot near Havana's Colón cemetery; the occasion a public funeral sponsored by the revolutionary government. The previous day a French munitions ship delivering arms to Cuba had mysteriously blown up in Havana harbor, killing scores of people and wounding hundreds. CIA involvement was suspected but never proven. Che, who had been at a meeting nearby in downtown Havana when the ship exploded, rushed to the docks and helped provide medical aid to the wounded and the dying.
On March 5, Che was standing on the speaker's platform while Castro harangued the crowd. He was gazing upon the assembly when photographer Alberto "Korda" Díaz Gutiérrez snapped a picture of him for Revolucíon, the official newspaper of Castro's 26th of July Movement. At the moment the shutter clicked, Che was hunched inside his bomber jacket against the unseasonable cold of that March day. The tension in his posture, combined with his piercing gaze ("angry and grieved" was the impression that Korda had of his subject's mood), made for a formally dynamic image. Citing art historian David Kunzle, Casey notes the "aesthetic magnets" of hair, beard and star, all of which both "steer the eye's attention" when looking at the photograph and "provide reference points for derivative art," allowing for simplified forms of "mass reproduction as a two-tone icon."
Korda knew he had taken a good picture, but his editors failed to agree: the photograph did not run in the following day's Revolucíon. Over the next few years it would enjoy only a few low-key appearances in Cuban periodicals. Eventually, someone in a position of influence recognized the image's iconic possibilities. Shortly before Che's death, the photo--by then known as "Guerrillero Heroico"--was made a centerpiece of official Cuban propaganda. It adorned the hall at an international gathering of artists and writers in Havana in May 1967 and later that summer was displayed at the founding meeting of the Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS). Korda's "Guerrillero Heroico" became routinely coupled with Che's famous slogan calling on the international left to "create two, three...many Vietnams." In the aftermath of Che's death, the Korda photo, or various graphic derivations, became a staple of radical newspapers and left-wing poster art in North and South America and Western Europe. And in an ironic post-1960s development, the image took on yet another life--this time as a marketing device, used to sell everything from air fresheners to condoms to an ice cream bar called Cherry Guevara.
Michael Casey, bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires and a frequent correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, seems especially to relish the commercial taint of recent appropriations of Che's image, the "commoditization of an anticapitalist rebel who opposed all that his hyper-commercialized image now represents." As Casey sees it, the issue is not that Che's image is without continuing political appeal but that it has too many diverse meanings to be the symbol of any coherent ideology. As one would expect, the Korda photo remains "the symbol of choice" for contemporary Latin American rebels, "wherever regional activists give the middle finger to the U.S.-backed free market system." It has also shown up in recent years as movement iconography in Palestine, Nepal, East Timor and many other locales caught up in radical insurgencies. But its appeal is not limited to conventional left-wing movements; it has been embraced, for instance, by "U.S.-backed Christian rebels in Sudan who are fighting a Muslim regime." He argues shrewdly that the contemporary meaning of Che's image ultimately isn't about communism or anti-imperialism: it's about attitude, and it's about sacrifice. "A man, a teacher, lays down a code of personal conduct from which to build a just society, a utopia, and then proceeds to live and die according to it."