Che Guevara's image is seen as a global icon crossing multiple social and cultural boundaries exemplified in street protests and in diverse visual messaging such as posters, logos, t‐shirts and slogans.
June 14th would have been Guevara's 91st birthday, yet many questions remain: Why do people everywhere still invoke this image? Why are they not dissuaded or discouraged by its commercialization? What kinds of capacities and potential does it hold for them?
In the visual world, a photograph's power to cross language and cultural boundaries makes it a critical site for negotiating messages and creating meaning.
For years, I noticed Guevara's image appearing in all kinds of places. I noticed it in a demonstration for teachers in Chennai, India, a manifestation against NATO in Istanbul, Turkey, a mug in Amsterdam, a tattoo on Mike Tyson's midriff and so on. My project tracked and collected thousands of these images.
Guevara's legacy remains controversial to this day. The Argentine physician, Cuban revolutionary and South American guerrilla leader is admired by some, reviled by others. His image invites us to recount and memorialize: but what exactly are we being asked to remember?
Remixes and repetition
Alberto Korda's 1960 photograph of Che Guevara, named the Guerrillero Heroico, is one of the most reproduced photographic images in the world. The publication of his picture, Korda noted, was like an explosion in the world of photography. Korda's photograph has been accompanied by worldwide renderings and remixes: through t-shirts, graffiti, banners and even tattoos of Che's face and often imprecise renderings, slogans and accompaniments chosen for display.
While fashion industries work to dilute the symbolic power of the photo and depoliticize it, others re-invest it with emancipatory and political meanings. My research worked to create spaces for understanding the continuing reproduction and use of the image of Che Guevara's face in this context.
Yet despite the commodification of the image, it still resonates with ordinary people who carry it on the streets.
Student use of Guevara's image by Korda began with radical movements scattered around the world in 1968, where Guevara became a symbolic leader. In Australia, student radicals at Sydney University in 1968 declared Guevara their hero. Students in the United States put Guevara's face on placards at demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Across the ocean in his cell, Irish Republican Army (IRA) convict, Anthony McIntyre wrote about Guevara's image after observing posters in prison.
In December 2004, as I made my way between protesters and police on the streets of Buenos Aires, Che Guevara's image was gazing from multiple banners. Someone handed me a flyer describing the 2001 protests when thousands filled the streets to demand the government step down (which it did three times). They connected the protests of 2001 to 2004 to the ones in the 1990s.
As people held up banners of Guevara, it seemed to function as a reminder of the connection between those struggles and others globally. Thus, Guevara's face marched against NATO in Istanbul, Bush in Berlin, privatization of education in Columbia, land rights in Mexico, and with Chavez and now Maduro in Venezuela.
It went viral before the internet
The adjective viral describes the mutation and carnivalization of images, typically over the internet: they can be altered, fragmented, re-contextualized and re-purposed in limitless ways. Using a word like virus to describe the spreading of images through sharing (like gossip) creates a blackbox effect suggesting we don't actually know why certain images spread more than others.
But before the invention of the internet, derivatives of the Guerrillero Heroico were unstoppable, multiplying worldwide despite bans on the image. What might fuel an individual's desire to re-render, carry, copy, appropriate or work with this image? There is no simple answer.
The Guerrillero Heroico is always in motion, it passes through the realm of the symbolic to the symptomatic and flickering between these kinds of classifications while rejecting these kinds of frames. In other words, the force of Guerrillero Heroico's appeal breaks the frame.
In the July 1967 issue of Paris Match, journalist and decorated war veteran Jean Pierre Lucien Osty wrote the article "Les Guerilleros" which ran with a full-page image of the Guerrillero Heroico. Another photo which ran inside the article, with the caption, "Che Guevara, where is he?" showed a crowd of Cubans gathering at Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion with a two-tone version of the Guerrillero Heroico held aloft on a placard, as if to say: "Here he is!"
In October 1967, the Polish graphic artist Roman Cieslewicz, designed a poster-like cover for Opus magazine. The facial features of the Guerrillero Heroico are removed and replaced with text. Suddenly, the "photographic face" became the ground for other expressions, yet something is still the same. The word "Che" instead of the eyes and "si" for the nose gesture toward the dynamics of words and slogans, as if the face itself is affirming, "Che, yes."
On Oct. 18, 1967, the shock and disbelief of Guevara's death was dispelled by Fidel Castro with his reading of Guevara's last letter in a eulogy delivered in front of a five-storey image of the Guerrillero Heroico, monumentally emphasizing that this was to be the memorial image of Guevara.
Journeys into the face
The image of Che Guevara represents more than just a face. It is an image that has become a symbol and has assumed different social, cultural and political functions. It has been revered, despised or carried in ritual processions. For example, one of the murals of Guevara appeared in the 23 de Enero parish in Caracas, Venezuela, where garbage was often dumped. After the face appeared, the garbage disappeared. The image of Guevara seems to authorize certain actions and attitudes while prohibiting others.
Images exchanged and modified by everyday people challenge the regimes of representation governing a society, while offering an alternative legitimacy. Testimony to the efficacy and vitality of images manifests in what they appear to do, what people do as a result, what they expect the form to achieve and why there are expectations at all.
We are no longer talking about someone appropriating the image of Che in order to do something. Instead - in our cut-and-paste culture of constant sharing of signs - we might say Guevara's face has become a collective interface and conduit for expression.
The fluidity of the image is both formed and informed by the cultural flows it participates in and it is all the more fluid because we are all the more adept at navigating the flows.
The progeny, multiplicities and continuing generative and transformational possibilities of the Guerrillero Heroico continue to defy efforts to classify, explain, critique, describe or respond to it.
Perhaps it is simply not to be understood.
Author: Maria-Carolina Cambre - Associate Professor, Sociology of Education, Concordia University