Real People Stories

The Way of Che

UPDATED 09/25/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/25/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

Kate Moss dons a sexy T-shirt bearing his image. The rap-rockers known as Rage Against the Machine splash it on their CD. And undergrad radicals and wannabes forever plaster it on their dorm-room walls. The "it" they have in common is the famous iconic photo of the revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, sporting a tilted black beret and looking both defiant and darkly romantic. Photographer Alberto Diaz Gutierrez, known as Korda, took the photo in 1960, when Che was 31, yet never tried to protect his copyright. That is, until Smirnoff appropriated the image for a 1998-99 U.K. vodka ad campaign. "Hundreds of companies used my photo, but none have been as offensive," says Korda, 72. "Che wasn't a drinking man. He was a revolutionary killed defending his ideals."

Outraged, the Havana-based photographer last April slapped a lawsuit on a London advertising firm and a photo agency for trivializing Che's image. A hearing is set for this month. So far the ad agency, Lowe Lintas, denies "infringement of any copyright or moral rights."

The photo in question was snapped during an appearance by the Argentine doctor turned rebel in Havana shortly after Castro seized power. "There was something about his eyes, a kind of mystery," recalls Korda—who adopted the surname of British filmmaker Zoltan Korda—then a freelancer for the government-run Revolution newspaper. His editors were less enthusiastic, and the photo languished in Korda's studio for years.

Then, in 1967, Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli asked for a copy; Korda gave him two prints as a gift. Months later Bolivian troops shot and killed Guevara, who had gone to South America to bolster local rebels, resulting in instant martyrdom for the charismatic 39-year-old. Capitalizing on the death, Feltrinelli printed millions of Che posters—without Korda's permission.

Korda never tried to collect royalties from Feltrinelli, who died in 1972, and says he bears no grudge. "He made the photo famous," says Korda, who recently began getting small copyright fees from publishers. "It's widely regarded that Korda could be a millionaire if he had been paid," says Rob Miller, head of Cuba Solidarity Campaign, a London humanitarian group acting on Korda's behalf.

But the photographer has never sought wealth. The only child of a Havana railroad worker and a homemaker, he sold typewriters at 18. By 1954 Korda's interest in photography had become a career, after he landed a commercial photo job.

Later he became Cuba's top fashion photographer. As his career flourished, he joined the revolutionary movement against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. "I became a secret member of Fidel's underground," says Korda, who spent days with models and nights with rebels. His involvement paid off. When Castro took power, Korda became his personal photographer.

Che, however, kept the press at bay. Once, before Korda could photograph Guevara working a sugarcane-cutting machine, Che demanded that he spend a week wielding a machete. "He hated being followed by the press," Korda says.

By 1969 Korda had quit covering politics, turning instead to underwater photography. Now semiretired, he supports himself with freelance advertising jobs and by selling photos of Castro and Che for $500 apiece.

When not at work, the four-time divorce and father of five nurtures his other great passion: women. He and his 21-year-old companion, Zaeli Miranda, share a modest two-bedroom apartment with her sister and a friend in Havana's Miramar district. "He's friendly and loving," Miranda says of Korda. "I'll ask him to take out the garbage, and he does it happily."

Korda says no matter how his lawsuit turns out, his lifestyle won't change, and any proceeds will buy medicine for Cuban children. "I don't care about money. I like being a poor man," he says. "I went after Smirnoff because of their degenerate ad. It's the principle of the thing."

Joanne Fowler
Mary Murray in Havana and Eileen Finan in London

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