The French freighter, La Coubre, was carrying munitions from Belgium to Cuba – where the Argentina-born Guevara had been instrumental in putting Fidel Castro in power a year earlier – when it exploded. Castro was quick to blame the Americans in his speech given at the service.
The photographer Alberto Korda was there, trying to get a snap of all the notable people milling about. Guevara, who was keeping a low profile, had been obscured by other men around him, but suddenly, a gap appeared and Korda was able to get a couple of quick-fire photos.
No one appreciated the image at the time – it certainly didn’t immediately strike anyone as iconic or particularly impressive. Korda liked it, however, and put it up in his home.
Birth of an iconic image
The photo wasn’t even published abroad until August 1967, when Che Guevara’s last revolutionary message “Create Two, Three, Many Vietnams” was broadcast as he fought in Bolivia.
Two months later, Guevara was shot by Bolivian high command.
This solidified his legacy as a revolutionary martyr. So when leftist Italian publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, visited Korda, he was drawn to this previously unseen photo and bought a print. Back in Europe, he started circulating the image of Guevara.
Its fame spread, becoming known as Guerrillero Heroico or The Heroic Guerrilla Fighter. The Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick was inspired to develop it into a high contrast drawing.
Thus the iconic image we know today was born. Fitzpatrick told the BBC he was “Determined that the image should receive the broadest possible circulation” so that Guevara’s name will “never die”.
It is perhaps ironic that one of the most commercialised capitalist images is of a man who fought bitterly against capitalism, and hated all it stood for.