Moments before he was shot to death by a soldier of the Bolivian government, the revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara told his executioner, “Shoot, coward! You are only going to kill a man!” Guevara died a short time later, on October 9, 1967 at the age of 39, but he was correct in his assertion that this would not be the end of his legacy. Today, that legacy almost always takes the form of a single photograph, Guerrillero Heroico, which some have called the most famous photograph in the world.
That photo was taken on March 5, 1960, seven years before Guevara’s death, at a funeral for workers killed in an explosion in a Cuban port that Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government blamed on the Americans. Guevara, a general in the revolution and the intellectual heavyweight of Castro’s regime, looked on as Castro delivered his fiery funeral oration. For about thirty seconds, he stepped to the front of a crowd near Castro’s rostrum, into the view of newspaper photographer Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, also known as Alberto Korda. Korda snapped two shots of Guevara, his face resolute and his long hair flowing from under his trademark beret, before Guevara retreated back into the crowd. Perhaps due to his background as a fashion photographer, Korda took a liking to one of the images and cropped it into a portrait, even though the newspaper La Revolución declined to use it.
For several years, the now-iconic photo remained nothing more than a personal favorite of the man who took it. Korda named the picture Guerrillero Heroico—“Heroic Guerrilla Warrior”—and hung it on his wall, occasionally handing out copies to guests. It was not until 1967 that the public would first see the image, which appeared in the magazine Paris Match alongside an article about Latin American guerilla movements.
Guevara was killed in October of that year, captured while fighting with Bolivian revolutionaries. During his memorial service in Havana, an enormous print of Guerrillero Heroico was hung over the façade of the Ministry of the Interior. The service marked Che’s canonization as a martyr of global revolution, as well as the ascendance of Korda’s image as an icon of rebellion.
The following year the image of Guevara went viral. It appeared on the cover of a copy of Guevara’s memoirs, published in Italy. It was also used as the cover of a literary journal advertised on the New York City subway. In the same year, Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick created a stylized version of the image, setting a black-and-white Guevara against a red background, and distributed it as widely as he could to honor Guevara’s legacy. A poster bearing Fitzpatrick’s image was shown at the Arts Laboratory in London. 1968 was a year of upheaval across the world, and Guevara’s image featured prominently during the student riots that swept France in May, the populist protests of Italy’s “Hot Autumn” and the nonviolent, surrealist-inspired demonstrations of the Dutch “Provos.”
In addition to being held aloft at protests or hung in the homes of his admirers, Guevara’s image has become popular as a fashion statement, adorning t-shirts and posters wherever counterculture is revered. Rage Against the Machine used a modified version of the image as the cover for their 1993 single “Bombtrack,” and Madonna referenced it on the cover of her 2003 album American Life. Korda succeeded in stopping Smirnoff Vodka from using his photo in one of its campaigns, but it has appeared in countless other advertisements, including ads by Nike and a campaign by Taco Bell which featured a Chihuahua in revolutionary garb.