You've seen the revolutionary photo, now here's the soap opera

The funeral photo that included Guevara remained obscure until 1967. That year Italian book publishers Giangiacomo Feltrinelli and Valerio Riva visited Estudios Korda in search of images for a Fidel Castro autobiography that would never materialize. Among the photos they liked and received was the group shot from the 1960 funeral.

Then Guevara was killed in Bolivia. As news of his death spread, Feltrinelli and Riva cropped the photo down and reproduced it copiously as a closeup. Guevara was transformed into an international icon, and Korda's photo became, in Cabrera Infante's words, "the subversive poster of the Twentieth Century." Korda told an interviewer that a group of Italian students in Milan attached the slogan "Che vive!" to the image.

But the photographer's fortunes soon faded. In 1968 the Castro government nationalized Korda's studio. Officials took away his equipment and negatives, including his photos of revolutionary subject matter and those he shot of Norka. "He was accused of making pornographic photographs," says Dante. "He was able to save some of his work by giving negatives to [Castro's then-girlfriend] Celia Sanchez, who protected and admired the intellectuals of that epoch." Korda was briefly jailed for his lascivious labors, then assigned to take pictures for the oceanographic research department of Cuba's Academy of Sciences.

A Korda moment in 1976 Havana (at top) with Fidel Alberto, Diana, Monica, baby Alejandra, Norka junior, and Dante; another in 2000 (above) with Diana, Norka, and Alejandra
photos Courtesy Alejandra Diaz
A Korda moment in 1976 Havana (at top) with Fidel Alberto, Diana, Monica, baby Alejandra, Norka junior, and Dante; another in 2000 (above) with Diana, Norka, and Alejandra

Over the years Sartre and de Beauvoir faded out of the official story behind "Heroic Guerrilla," as the revolutionary shibboleth seeped in. "Che was in the second row on the rostrum and wasn't visible," Korda told an interviewer not long before his death. "But then there was a moment in which he stepped out in front to assess the people's anger over that attack by Yankee imperialism, which caused a great number of victims. I was panning the personalities on the rostrum with my camera and I was surprised by his expression. I pressed the shutter. I only had time to take two shots and then Che returned to his place." Korda added that he didn't know why the original photo wasn't published.

Cabrera Infante accuses the photographer of "disseminating lies over lies" in his embellishments. "He dedicated himself to retrospective self-eulogy," the writer scolds, "and to telling all those Castro lies that were converted to collective disinformation."

Korda was never much concerned with reproductions of the Guevara photo, which he eventually dubbed "Heroic Guerrilla," as long as they were for posters, T-shirts, and other vessels of revolutionary spirit. But in August 2000, Korda and a London-based group called the Cuba Solidarity Campaign sued a British advertising agency (Lowe Lintas) and a photography agency for unauthorized use of "Heroic Guerrilla" in print advertisements for a pepper-flavored style of Smirnoff vodka. In the ad Guevara's visage appeared alongside a parodized hammer and sickle, in which a red chili pepper replaced the sickle. "To use the image of Che Guevara to sell vodka is a slur on his name and memory," Korda told Britain's The Guardian newspaper. "He never drank himself. He was not a drunk, and drink should not be associated with his immortal memory."

A month later the companies agreed to pay Korda $50,000 for damages. He announced that he donated the sum to Cuba's Ministry of Public Health for the purchase of medicine for children. A London court that oversaw the settlement also granted Korda copyright protection in Britain. In Havana the photographer defended the lawsuit on Cuba's Mesa Redonda television program shortly after the victory. "If Che were alive he would have done the same thing," he told a panel of commentators. "I have never charged a cent when they reproduce this photo on posters and T-shirts that promote solidarity and sympathy with the ideas of Che. But I can't permit the perversion of that image for unacceptable commercial aims."

His daughter Alejandra likens the settlement amount to "a piece of garbage." She says a liquor company as big as Smirnoff should have paid her father much more. She thinks that because the Cuba Solidarity Campaign was involved her father really had no choice but to donate the money to the government "and play the role of hero of the revolution one more time."

Piracy of "Heroic Guerrilla," however, was too widespread for Korda to control. He and a representative in France explored suing Switzerland-based Swatch for using the photo on a line of watches, according to Guffanti. But Korda didn't follow through on that legal action.

Guffanti and her daughter say Korda also had considered suing Sony for allowing the rock band Rage Against the Machine to use "Heroic Guerrilla" on a CD cover. But he dropped the idea because he knew the U.S. trade embargo would bar Sony from paying him. "He realized that he couldn't charge Sony a cent because he was Cuban," Alejandra says.

Last August Guffanti sent a letter to Castro notifying him that her son Dante had challenged the will. Taking the patriarch's suggestion at the funeral, she also sent copies to Prieto and Martí. Korda would never have knowingly signed a will that favored one of his children over the others, she argued. "[Korda] always lived modestly and helped his children and grandchildren equally," Guffanti wrote. "His preoccupation for his family while he was alive contradicts the document drafted in 1999, whose authenticity I doubt."

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