Che's Afterlife

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  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-04-07
  • Publisher: Vintage

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In 1960, Cuban photographer Alberto Korda captured fabled revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara in what has become history's most reproduced photo. Now Michael Casey tells the remarkable story of this image, detailing its evolution from a casual snapshot to an omnipresent graphicplastered on everything from T-shirts to vodka to condomsand into a copyrighted brand. As Casey follows it across the Americas and through cyberspace, he finds governments exploiting it and their dissenters attacking it, merchants selling it and tourists buying it. We see how this image is, ultimately, a mercurial icon that still ignites passionand a reflection of how we view ourselves.

Author Biography

Michael Casey is the Buenos Aires bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires and a frequent correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. A native of Perth, Western Australia, he has worked in numerous other countries as a journalist, including Thailand, Indonesia and the U.S. He is a graduate of the University of Western Australia and has an MA from Cornell University. He is married with two children.



A Frozen Millisecond 

Sometimes I get to places just when God's ready to have somebodyclick the shutter.
—Ansel Adams, photographer  

Early on march 4, 1960, two massive explosions ripped through the French freighter La Coubre while it was docked in Havana's harbor with a load of Belgian weapons in its cargo hold. At least seventy-six people died, and several hundred more were injured. Cuban leader Fidel Castro immediately accused the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency of sabotage. (The exact cause remains a mystery, but Cuba maintains to this day that it was an act of terrorism.) Parallels were drawn to an explosion decades earlier whose cause was never proven, one that also sunk a foreign ship berthed in Havana: the USS Maine. The events triggered by that 1898 blast led Theodore Roosevelt to declare war on Cuba's Spanish rulers. Now, sixty-two years later, many feared the tragedy of La Coubre would have a similar catalytic effect.  

Castro staged a state funeral the following day, an event that attracted a massive throng of mourners. There he tapped his countrymen's nationalist sentiments. "Patria o muerte! Venceremos!" Castro bellowed. My homeland or death! We will win! This rousing call to arms would become one of the Cuban revolution's most enduring slogans. On March 5, 1960, it set the tone for an escalation in conflict with the United States.  

The day of the funeral was unseasonably cold, even to the point of being chilly, and the sky was overcast. Yet for one group of Cubans whose presence mattered a lot to the image-conscious Castro, the conditions were fortuitous. The self-described "Epic Revolutionary" photographers, a recent addition to the leader's growing entourage, would find that the gray conditions lent the event an evocative, funereal light.  

Among them was Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, a Porsche-driving fashion photographer turned photojournalist. On contract to Revolución, the flagship newspaper of Castro's 26th of July Movement, he was the nearest thing his intellectual editors had to a paparazzo. Díaz Gutiérrez, known as Korda, was in position on the corner of 23rd and 12th streets among the multitude. His eyes were at the level of the platform set up on a flatbed truck in front of Havana's stately Colón cemetery. As the Cuban leader launched into his bombast, Korda snapped shots of the celebrities in attendance, his back to a massive crowd that was by now stretching down the two intersecting streets. He got a few of Castro midtirade, with a sampling of the Cuban leader's theatrical facial expressions and hand gestures, and a couple of a pensive-looking Antonio Núñez Jiménez, the geographer and soldier whose impressively long and thick beard lent him the aura of a Victorian-era professor. Most important, he was careful to get a whole series of two special foreign guests whose visit to revolutionary Cuba he'd been assigned to follow: the French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Days earlier, he'd taken shots of them locked in an animated discussion that went into the wee hours of the morning with Cuba's young, French-speaking central bank president: an Argentine who'd impressed them immensely with his intelligence and energy. Here, however, at a memorial to a tragedy in which the dead included six of their countrymen, Korda captured the pair of French intellectuals in an appropriately somber mood.  

Then someone else appeared in his viewfinder. It was the central bank president, who was standing a little off to the side of Castro. Braced against the cold, the man was dressed in a leather bomber jacket zippered to the collar, and he wore his trademark beret on his head. Before sitting, he paused, an unsettled sky behind him, and looked out intently across the crowd. Little did he know,

Excerpted from Che's Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image by Michael Casey
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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