THE BROADER PICTURE / The man who shot Che Guevara

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The Independent Culture
ALBERTO Diaz Gutierrez, better known as 'Korda', was born in Cuba in 1928, the same year that Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, who would have celebrated his 66th birthday this week, was born in Argentina. Korda's family was working class - his father worked for the railways - and although he obtained a degree in journalism he began his professional life as a door-to-door salesman, selling cash registers. Then, while trying to sell one to a photographer, he discovered his vocation.

In 1956 Korda founded a photographic studio, 'Korda', in Havana, where he shot pictures for Bacardi rum and American soap advertisements. He also snapped the Cuban capital's most beautiful, flamboyant and decadent women. It was a pleasant life for him, despite the Batista dictatorship, and would have continued sweetly had it not been for Fidel Castro. On 1 January 1959 Castro seized power. Korda saw it all on television. 'I was in a state of shock and began to work for the revolution, spontaneously,' he says. As well as working for Revolucion, the new regime's principal daily, he was allowed to cover the famous 'barbudos' (bearded ones), Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, on their trips to the United States and Venezuela. One particular photograph, portraying Castro in front of a statue of Abraham Lincoln, took Castro's fancy, and Korda became his personal photographer for the next 10 years.

Yet Korda's most famous photograph was not of Castro. In March 1960, a French cargo ship carrying Belgian guns for Cuba was blown up in the port of Havana. Seventy people were killed. Three days later, Castro delivered an impassioned speech in Havana, haranguing a crowd with 'Patria o muerte' while holding up explosives of the type that he claimed the CIA had used to blow up Le Coubre. Korda, working for Revolucion, was sitting opposite the official platform. He photographed Fidel and his brother Raul. Then he noticed that Che Guevara had come up to the edge of the platform. He immediately took two photos, one horizontal, one vertical, before Guevara backed away. Then he turned his attentions to Castro's other guests, who included Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. As expected, Revolucion chose one of the shots of Castro to publish, and the pictures of Guevara remained with Korda. He reframed a print of one of them and stuck it up on a wall in his house.

Seven years later, in June 1967, the left-wing Italian publisher Giancomo Feltrinelli was visiting Havana. A friend of Castro, he was looking for a good portrait of Che Guevara, who was missing in Bolivia. Feltrinelli enjoyed a good reputation in Havana - he had been instrumental in obtaining the release of French left-wing activist Regis Debray from a Bolivian prison - and Korda offered him two prints of his Guevara photo. He charged nothing. The prints were a present.

Four months later, Che Guevara was assassinated by CIA-trained Bolivian special forces. 'Che' became a legend, and Feltrinelli published one of his prints in the form of a poster. It became a worldwide bestseller. Over the years, the Italian must have made untold thousands in illicit royalties from the picture. Yet when Korda visited him in his office in Milan in 1970 Feltrinelli received him for only five minutes. Neither broached the subject of the photo; for Korda it was a question of honour - he had offered Feltrinelli the prints, after all. 'But if he had paid me just one lira for each reproduction, we would have received millions,' says a placid Korda in Havana today. Sitting next to him is his wife, Almi. She raises her eyes and taps her finger on her head in a gesture whose significance is unmistakable.

Yet a certain amount of justice has, in a sense, been done. Feltrinelli, who never ceased to consider himself a revolutionary, blew himself up while engaged in terrorist activities shortly after their meeting. Korda, meanwhile, is living happily in Cuba and has returned to his first love: taking pictures of pretty girls on the beach.

(Photographs omitted)

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