Festive Left Friday Blogging: A certain famous photo turns 50

Alberto Korda’s iconic portrait of Che, mourning the loss of his compañeros, is 50 years old today. Here’s the story behind it:

Three in the afternoon. March 4, 1960. The steamer La Coubre was anchored in the bay of Havana. In its hold were 44 tons of grenades and 31 of munitions. Romualdo Díaz, in the first compartment, was unloading boxes. José Antonio Díaz was commenting on what a lovely day it was. It was rather cool out, agreeable. The bell rang for the changing of the watch, and Manuel La O headed for the ship to take his post on guard. José Antonio went to the pier for an afternoon snack. Romualdo stayed a few minutes, conversing with the stevedores who had come to relieve him. Around 3:10 pm he disembarked, and walked a few steps toward the pier…

Suddenly, an explosion shook the earth. The electrical posts trembled and a black-edged mushroom cloud rose over the harbor. Romualdo was thrown through the air. When he came to again, he saw that the landscape had changed: the warehouses had no roofs, and La Coubre, its prow blown open, had been tossed to one side. José Antonio woke up up on the ground, bleeding from his head and leg. Manuel had fallen unconscious, and on recovering consciousness, he had a coughing fit because of the dense black smoke.

Rebel soldiers, police, firemen, people in general, arrived to provide first aid. They began to rescue the injured and recover the dismembered bodies of the dead. A second explosion swept away those who, defying danger, had made this gesture of human solidarity. The total number of dead would never be known. The remains of 101 persons were found, but only 95 were identified. The number of injured surpassed 200.

Weeks before, the Yankee consul in Brussels and a military attaché from the embassy had pressured the manufacturers and the Belgian foreign ministry not to sell those arms to Cuba. Western European experts who investigated the sinister event affirmed that there had been no negligence in the discharge. The Cuban people never had any doubt that the ship had been sabotaged. To this day, there is the full conviction that it was all the doing of the CIA.


That March 5, Fidel gave a speech and alongside him were the commanders of the revolution, among them Che Guevara. Che was accompanied by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

The photographer of the daily paper, Revolución, Alberto Korda, covered the event. Che was not in his line of sight. He later related:

“I was some 8 to 10 metres from the dais where Fidel was speaking, and had a camera with a semi-telephoto lens when I noticed that Che was approaching the rail, where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were. Che had been on a second level. He drew nearer to look out at the sea of people. I got him in my viewfinder, took one and then another frame, and then Che drew back. It all took place in half a minute.” Later he heard Fidel say “Patria o Muerte” (Homeland or Death.)

“After I had developed the film and made the contact sheets, I told myself ‘Damn, what an expression this man here has!’ I made a blow-up and hung it in my studio. I had to spend the evening at the burial of the victims of La Coubre, for Revolución. My photo of Fidel talking on the stage with the hand-grenades that remained after the explosion was published the next day in the paper, but the photo of Che was not published. It would not be published until April 15, 1961, in a press release announcing Che as Minister of Industry…this was confirmed later. Many times people have asked me if Che knew of my photo; I replied no. I imagined that since he read the paper closely he must have seen the photo, but we never spoke of it.

“In Cuba the photo was used for the first time as part of the funeral ceremony for Che in 1967. It was made into a large line drawing which was attached to the side of the building housing the Ministry of the Interior. They raised a platform there, and the next day all the daily papers published pictures of Fidel on their front pages, with the flag at half-mast and below it, my photo of Che. I never knew who rescued that photo nor how they did it. Maybe it was Celia or Haydée. That day I had a leg in a cast, and it took me a lot of effort to reach the National Library and the platform to take pictures. It was one of the largest crowds I’ve ever seen, and there was an impressive silence in the square. Getting to the stage with my gimpy leg was so hard that I really don’t recall if I felt anything special when I saw that practically-forgotten photo.

“Four or five months before October 1967, when Che was killed, there came a man, unknown to me, looking for a photo of Che and with the recommendation of Haydée Santamaría. I showed him the photo in my studio. He said to me, ‘Could you make me two copies?’ The next day he came to collect the 11 x 14 enlargements. ‘How much do I owe you?’ It’s a gift, I told him, since you were sent by a person I admire greatly. And the man left. He was Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who had come from Bolivia, trying to intervene with the government of that country for the freedom of Régis Debray. I imagine that somehow, Feltrinelli had information that Che was in Bolivia, which few people in the world would know. This image became famous thanks to Feltrinelli’s poster, which I did not suspect he would reproduce.

“I was not known in the world even after Feltrinelli’s poster came out. The copyright did not include my name. I lent the negative to an Italian journalist in Mexico, Giuliana Scimè, for her photography workshop, which published an article in the Italian magazine, Progresso Fotografico (June 1983), in which she told how her students, upon seeing the negative, were crying from sheer emotion. The photo was famous and no one cared who had taken it.”


The famous photograph of the Heroic Guerrilla, taken by Alberto Korda, is, in the opinion of the great critics, one of the ten finest photographic portraits of all time and is the most-reproduced in the history of photography in all the world.

Translation mine. Linkage added.

In the uncropped original, you can see that Che, while clearly the centre of focus, is not in the foreground:


…indicating that it really was just a chance occurrence that Korda happened to catch him in that pose, and wearing that rather characteristic intense expression–which you can see in various forms in several shots, most notably those in Jon Lee Anderson’s excellent bio of Che. One striking example is a Mexican police mugshot of a much younger Che, sans beard and with shorter hair, apparently in the grips of an asthma attack, which contorted those handsome features quite a bit. This pic actually looks relaxed compared to that one.

Alberto Korda’s attitude toward his iconic portrait is interesting; he did not object to it being widely copied and distributed without permission, so long as it was done in sincere tribute to Che
and what he stood for, and not for crass profit. A dedicated revolutionary himself to the very end, Korda did, however, take a vodka company to court for using Che’s picture to sell their booze, asserting (with some reason) that Che himself would strenuously object to such a commercial use of his face. Che, while not teetotal, was notably contemptuous of anyone who drank too much, feeling it reeked of undiscipline. Since he was a morale-conscious guerrilla leader during the Cuban revolution, and many of his bitterest enemies were casino-owning mafiosi, it’s not hard to see why he felt that way.

Lest anyone get the idea that Che was dead serious all the time, though, here’s my personal favorite pic of him. I don’t know who took it (probably not Korda), but I love it because it shows his other side, which had a wonderfully wicked sense of humor:


Viva el Che, carajo.

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2 Responses to Festive Left Friday Blogging: A certain famous photo turns 50

  1. Jim Burke says:

    Che was a murdering POS!

  2. No, the murdering POS was the CIA-sponsored coward who killed him in Bolivia. In Cuba, he oversaw the public trials of Batista’s torturers and thugs, and many times he actually had to try to chill out the crowds who were baying for blood. Read some history, you ignorant snot.

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