Che's Image Takes a Twist

The commercialization of an icon


| September 2, 2004


The famous monochromatic image of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro's comrade in the Cuban revolution, has been a symbol of the radical left for decades. Its crossover from icon of socialism to the realm of pop-culture commodity appears to be in its final phase: an Atlanta company that may be using Honduran sweatshop labor to produce 'Che' t-shirts is threatening legal action against a Minneapolis company that has sold its own 'Che' products for two decades.

Cuban photographer Alberto Korda took the famous picture at a funeral in 1960 and gave a print to an Italian journalist in 1967. After Guevara's death in 1968 the photo was distributed widely in Italy, and then the rest of the world. It has been duplicated by like-minded progressives ever since. Scott Cramer's Northern Sun Merchandising of Minneapolis has been selling the Che Guevara image on t-shirts and posters for nearly 25 years. Atlanta-based Fashion Victim is threatening to sue Cramer on the grounds that it bought the North American rights to the image in 2002.

The image has a long history of free distribution and modification from Korda in 1960, to posters in Italy in 1968, to Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick, the man who modified Korda's photo and turned it into the two-toned print so familiar to us all today. It is apparently Fitzpatrick's 1968 modification of the Korda photo that Andy Warhol used in his treatment of Che Guevara. The tradition has continued in innumerable copies of Korda and Fitzpatrick's creation since the 1960s.

Alberto Korda, who died in 2001, had always been amenable to the unfettered distribution of his photo -- as long as it wasn't counter to the spirit of Che Guevara. Korda never asked for any profits from the sale of his image, and never questioned the use of it until 2000, when he sued Smirnoff Vodka for using it in an ad campaign.

Apparently, Korda's estate has sold the rights to the photo to David McWilliams' company, Fashion Victim, which has its t-shirts produced in Honduras, a country where most clothes are produced in sweatshops. What makes this story so tragic is what makes it so ironic. This 'free trade' in Che Guevara iconography has come to a halt in America. What was tacitly treated as leftist cultural property, accessible to all before Korda's death is now being zealously guarded by a corporate interest that asks a new generation of radicals to buy 'Che' symbols produced in Honduras.
-- Harry Sheff

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