Ernesto “Che” Guevara is perhaps the most recognized counterculture figure in the world. His face or a stylized version of it appears on T-shirts, backpacks, bandanas, and even buildings. His image has been brandished by hippies in the 1970s and by the Material Girl more recently; it is tattooed on the body of boxer Mike Tyson; it appears on the luxury yacht Che Guevara II owned by Moamar Gaddafi’s son; Iranian and Palestinian Muslims, Israeli Jews, and Sudanese Christians all invoke El Che in support of their various causes.
The image is everywhere, and it is always the same – a strong, handsome, bearded face, piercing eyes gazing at some distant object or idea, a beret perched comfortably atop rakishly long hair. This is the photo credited to fashion photographer-turned-photojournalist Alberto Korda. It was snapped in 1960, when Che attended a funeral for victims of the La Coubre, a freighter docked in Havana and destroyed by explosion. Fidel Castro staged the funeral; Che, then-president of Cuba’s central bank and one of Castro’s followers who aided in overthrowing the Batista government, was just one of the solid Marxists in attendance.
There is irony here, of course. To begin with, chances are that few of today’s Che fans can explain who he was or what he did. Many of them probably can’t even name the man whose image they sport. As author Michael Casey reports “One T-shirt seen around Buenos Aires bears the Korda image and the words ‘I don’t know who this is but he’s trendy.’”
The wearer of that shirt isn’t the only one who doesn’t know Che. Many stories are told about Che’s heroic and cowardly death, and about his brutal and compassionate nature. As Casey tracks the history of the iconic photo, it becomes apparent that its story is as cloudy and doubtful as the man it depicts. The image is Che, ambiguous and unknown; like the life and death of Che, the true story of the famous photo is lost in a contradictory heap of stories.
Most of the self-defined rebels and activists who use the ubiquitous image as a logo for whatever cause are the very people and causes Che Guevara opposed. Che was – and is - whatever one wants him to be. As Casey points out in Che's Afterlife,
“He continues to inspire those with both peaceful and violent agendas throughout the world, antiglobalization crusaders, antiwar protesters, gay rights activists, environmentalists, and indigenous and immigrants’ rights groups – they all wear Che.”
The greater irony, of course, is that El Che, the avid promoter of the ‘New Man’ who would eschew material gain in favor of moral action, the man who “… thought the path to socialism lay in forgoing all the earthly stuff entirely,” has become little more than a product to be sold in every form and venue imaginable.
Che's Afterlife is an admirable attempt to determine why a single black-and-white photo appeals to so many people in so many cultures. Thoroughly researched and documented, this is a book that demonstrates just how foolish we are when we take a face at face value.