After 50 Years, Battle Still Rages Over Iconic Photograph of Che Guevara

Fifty years ago, Cuban photographer Alberto Díaz “Korda” Gutiérrez took a picture of Ernesto “Che” Guevara at a funeral with a 90mm lens on a Leica camera.

Korda was on assignment as a photographer for the publication, Revolucion. He snapped the photo on a whim, capturing Guevara’s intense, upward gaze in a brief moment. Korda later told interviewers, “It was not planned, it was intuitive.”

A fashion photographer by trade, Korda returned to the darkroom and cropped the originally horizontal photo in order to draw attention to the now iconic steely visage of the leader.

However, at first, Korda’s photo fell to the wayside, and was not published for another five months until it was run as a largely unnoticed file photo.

Seven years later, following Guevara’s death, Fidel Castro requested a photo of the leader on a poster, which was printed on a poster in Italy. Demand for the image rose in the commercial market as well, and the Italian businessman who produced the first print went on to sell over a million copies without artist attribution.

Since then, the image has become one of the most widely reproduced images in history, establishing a cultural memory and a posthumous brand.

According to the Observer, Korda’s work, at the time was not legally protected since Cuba did not recognize copyright. This meant that anyone and everyone could use the image, which contributed to the photo’s worldwide proliferation and iconic quality: the image itself has become a brand, reprinted on clothing, banners, and even on Cuban currency.

Korda received no compensation or royalties from his image.

The photographer eventually sued Smirnoff in 2000 for what he believed was a fundamental violation of Guevara’s political beliefs and an insult to his memory when the vodka company used the image in a magazine ad. Korda won, and the case also awarded him rights to his image.

In recent years after Korda’s death in 2001, Korda’s daughter, Diana Díaz, has launched copyright battles against companies she feels also abuse the image for use in advertisement. A notably ironic twist: Díaz agreed to sell licenses to “Che” branded products (the clothing, berets, etc.) in order to finance her legal pursuits.

Nevertheless, during his suit against Smirnoff Korda stated,

As a supporter of the ideals for which Che Guevara died, I am not averse to its reproduction by those who wish to propagate his memory and the cause of social justice throughout the world…

Díaz’s copyright suits are similar to the AP’s case against artist Shepard Fairey, which addresses the use and reproduction of a photographic image to use as a marketing brand without the photographers’ consent.

What are your thoughts on the use and copyright status of this iconic photograph?

(via The Observer)

Image credit: Photo of Korda by Redthoreau, Guerrillero Heroico by Alberto Diaz Gutierrez, and Chinatown Night Market #2 by SqueakyMarmot

  • rwanderman

    How Castro found and gave the image to the Italian printer seems important (ethically, not necessarily legally). If Korda let the image go at that point and then had a change of heart later after it became iconic and commercially important, that seems to make this a different situation than the Fairey/AP situation where the photographer and the AP never gave the image away to Fairey or anyone else.

    If I read the story correctly, I don't think Korda's daughter has an ethical case.

  • JessicaLum

    Right — it gets sticky because she's using the image for commercial purposes, as its own brand. Her gripe is with other companies appropriating that “brand” for their own use as well. The suits have shifted from copyright to licensing.

  • rwanderman

    Jessica: Did her dad license the image to the Italian printer? I doubt it from your post. If he didn't then it seems disingenuous to say, in retrospect that some unlicensed use is okay if it's politically agreeable and other use isn't. Again, I'm not arguing a legal case (I'm no lawyer) but commenting on the ethics of it.

  • JessicaLum

    Back then, there was no copyright. Cuba had no laws and didn't register under the World Trade Organization until after Soviet Russia ended. I think that Korda was okay with the general use and redistribution of his image — after all, that is what helped boost him into the global limelight. Plus, he later landed a job as Fidel Castro's personal photographer.
    It doesn't seem like Korda minded the mass printing of Che's photo — it became a symbol of revolution, of the era, etc., all things that Guevara himself was likely to appreciate as well. However, when it was “misused” to advertise vodka for a global corporation, Korda felt like it was exploitation of the image and an insult to Guevara's memory.
    But a major difference is that when Korda won the suit against Smirnoff, he was recognized as the copyright holder for the image, and therefore held all the rights for reproduction from that point on.
    I think it's sort of like Creative Commons — some items can be used with permission and in appropriate contexts, but cannot be remixed or adapted for commercial purposes. I guess that's where ethics can go both ways: it might be legal, but would it be ethical for a commercial enterprise to use remix image they don't own for profit?

  • rwanderman

    Jessica: I wonder what Korda would think of Greenpeace using the image, or another American-based human (or animal) rights NGO?

  • Mark

    “Che’s life is an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom, we will always honor his memory.” — NELSON MANDELA

  • Robert

    The celebration of Korda's iconic image and of the life of Che is a cruel joke on those who are ignorant of history as well as a vile reminder for the survivors of the thousands he brutally murdered. Facts are stubborn things.

  • Robert

    Of course, artists and photographers would be warmly embraced by Che and his ilk.

  • VivaChe!

    To the right-wing clown above …

    Che’s “CRIMES” were

    ~ Overthrowing a brutal U$ backed dictator allied with the Mafia (Batista)

    ~ Stopping American companies from owning 70 % of the arable land in Cuba

    ~ Teaching peasants to read, by bringing the Cuban literacy rate from 60 to 97 %

    ~ Having the 200 or so War Criminals who killed 20,000 Cubans for Batista shot against a wall

    ~ Speaking out against South African Apartheid to the UN in 1964

    ~ Fighting white mercenaries in the African Congo with an all black army

    ~ Speaking out against U$ and eventually USSR Imperialism while demanding that the poor of the world be allowed to live a life of dignity

  • VivaChe!

    To me Che Guevara is one of the most heroic figures in world history who is a stoic example of what all those who speak of “revolution” should espouse to be.

    This was a man who left a bourgeoisie comfortable life of the upper class, a potential well compensated career as a medical doctor, and a high regarded governmental position, each time to slog through the jungle and fight guerrilla wars against impenetrable odds = for a better and more equitable society.

    Throughout his life Che tended to thousands of sick campesinos, helped construct dozens of schools throughout Cuba, worked in a Leper colony to helped those afflicted, and even when he was literally tied up in a small mud school house awaiting his own execution ! , still complained to the local teacher that in a nation where the leaders drove Mercedes … it was a travesty that the peasants were taught in a dilapidated place like he was in.

    If the world had 100 Che’s … or hell even 10 … we would be in much better shape.

  • Venceremos

    “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality… We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.”

  • Venceremos

    Che will live in the hearts of millions for all of eternity …

    Hasta la Victoria Siempre!

  • Venceremos

    “We must bear in mind that imperialism is a world system, the last stage of capitalism – and it must be defeated in a world confrontation. We must eliminate the foundations of imperialism: our oppressed nations, from where they extract capitals, raw materials, technicians and cheap labor, and to which they export new capitals – instruments of domination – arms and all kinds of articles; thus submerging us in an absolute dependance.” — Che Guevara

  • joe

    communism-gotta love it! A real motivator. Love the ironic nature of this guy not getting a penny for his excellent work. Hilarious. Even better is that capitalists made millions. Thanks Che!

  • Gavin Little

    worth reading as this includes the background to the iconic graphic image artist Jim Fitzpatrick created from the original photo…