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Korda was 31 years old in March 1960 when an assignment took him to a funeral for dozens of people killed when an explosion ripped through a Belgian steamship docked in Havana's harbor. (Cuban authorities blamed it on counterrevolutionaries.) Among the mourners were philosopher Jean Paul Sartre and writer Simone de Beauvoir. According to Cabrera Infante, Korda wasn't covering the funeral per se but rather "following Sartre around everywhere." One of the pictures he came back with was a group photo of the revolution's first tier, including Fidel Castro, then-president Oswaldo Dorticos, Guevara, and various others. But it was not among the photos published alongside testimonials in a special issue of Lunes three days later.

A couple of years afterwards, Cabrera Infante had wanted to publish another of Korda's photos more to his and the photographer's liking. This one featured a naked woman holding a Czech machine gun in front of her torso. "One couldn't see her head, which must have been beautiful, nor her militant pubis: it only showed, like the remains of a Greek goddess in sepia, her erect breasts." But the government had folded the Lunes supplement, and the writer had to settle for displaying the picture in his apartment until he hightailed it to Belgium in 1965. (The Castro government also closed down Revolución that year to make way for Granma, the Cuban Communist Party's daily organ.)

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.

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."

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen