James Leavey's Corner
25 Seconds In The Life Of Che Guevara

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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

Reproduced with permission.

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James Leavey
Some images stick in the mind.The day I met Alberto Diaz Gutierrez (he likes to be known as Korda) in Miramar, Havana's most expensive suburb, three young boys were using an old door to surf a huge puddle of water just down the street from his home. It would have made a great picture...

We'd originally agreed to meet the day before but I arrived late and Korda's non-English-speaking housekeeper, Nolea, mimed to show he was resting and couldn't be disturbed.Judging by the rows of empty spirit bottles lining the shelves in the kitchen I indicated that I got the impression he was sleeping off the effects of his favourite Habana Club rum.She nodded, laughed, accepted the offer of a Callard & Bowser cream toffee and suggested I return the following day, on what would have been Che Guevara's 69th birthday.But not after midday, she mimed, otherwise he'd be 'resting' again.

On March 4 1960, the French freighter, La Coubre, exploded in Havana harbour, allegedly due to CIA sabotage, and almost 100 people were killed.The next day, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara linked arms at the head of a funeral cortege as it wound along the Malecon. Later, Fidel spoke to the angry and upset crowd from a scaffolded platform erected at the cemetary, flanked by other revolutionary leaders.

It was at that moment 32-year-old Korda, a former Cuban fashion photographer, took a single photograph of Che Guevara and unwittingly launched an international icon.

Korda had somehow captured the essence of the macho idealist's physical and spiritual personality. Che is shown staring thoughtfully into the distance, his Messianic face framed by his long hair and black beret studded with a single star.

After Che's death in Bolivia on October 9 1967, a print taken from the original landscape format negative, still in Korda's apartment, was cropped by an Italian poster publisher to focus on the Argentian-born martyr rather than the Cuban compatriots on either side of him. Korda's photograph rapidly became a symbol for worldwide student revolt.

It is still one of the most powerful and famous images of the 20th century. Entrepeneurs around the world have made a small fortune from reproducing it on a growing mountain of merchandise.

On 14 September, Korda turned 69, almost the same age as Guevara had he lived.He owns a modest two-bedroomed apartment facing the sea which he shares with his housekeeper, a young girlfriend and two caged birds named Kafka and Carildis.

He admits to having six or seven wives ("I can't remember exactly"), five children, five grandchildren and countless lovers."They call me Cocky," he boasted with a grin, pouring a beer and lighting up a H.Upmann Superfinos – he smokes about two packs a day.40 years ago he used to get rolling drunk with Hemingway in Havana's bars.

Over lunch, Korda claimed he has never received a penny in royalties from Guevara's glorified picture and dismissed the whole thing with a shrug."I just had 25 seconds to take that photograph, then Che disappeared. And there's no copyright control of photos in Cuba."

Had he ever analysed why that particular photograph had such an impact""I don't know," he said. "It's a strong image.I suppose it has something to do with his eyes. It gives the image that many many people think is Che Guevara's character."

What kind of photographs does he like to take""I just walk around and if I see the picture, I take it.And that's all."

Korda took up photography in his early teens and admires the work of Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans, among others.His first camera was a Rolliflex.By 1954, he had a small studio in Havana and was taking photographs for the fashion industry via advertising agencies

He first met Castro shortly after Fidel entered Havana in January 1959: "I began to take photos of everything that happened during the revolution.A newspaper sent me with Castro to Venezuela and then we went to America where he played golf with President Eisenhower. Che used to playgolfbut he refused to join us.A few days later anewspaper published that Castro was a better player than Eisenhower."

Was it true""It was not true but they published it anyway."So Castro was always better at playing games than America's presidents""You could say this, yes. After that I became Fidel's personal photographer until 1968."

Why did he stop""The government created a special unit for photographing Fidel but it was a military department and I didn't want a military career.. I've lived in Miramar for 13 years and before that I had 2-3 homes where Fidel used to visit me.I was a very good friend of Fidel Castro until now.We still meet sometimes, but not at my present home, and he speaks 'Hello how are you"' and I say 'fine'."

Korda then set up a new department for scientific underwater photography for Cuba's Scientific Academy and spent the next 12 years recording the underwater landscape around the Caribbean island's coast.The Jacques Cousteau of Cuban photography, Korda said he enjoyed diving with a special camera in a waterproof box. "It's a beautiful landscape under water. You can dive anyplace off Cuba's coast and you will find wonderful fauna, fish, coral and many many things."

In 1980, Korda returned to freelance fashion photography.Now he's retired. "There will be no more photographs and no more children," he said."Now I only make expositions around the world.I have already been to France, Mexico, Brazil, Norway and Italy. " In September, he hopes to make his first visit to England.

Apart from his exhibition, which is opening in London, Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy over the next few months, 100 of Korda's photographs will shortly be published in a book by the Cuban government; his favourite is of a young girl comforted by a piece of wood.

I asked him how he felt about being famous for one photograph taken 37 years ago. "That's not important for me," said Korda."It wasn't my decision that they used that picture.I only met Che ten times and took 23 photographs of him.He knew me, I knew him.I cannot say he was a friend."

Che Guevara – the exhibition – photographs 1958-1964.Original prints by four Cuban photographers, Korda, Perfecto Romero, Roberto Salas and Osvaldo Salas.

10am-6pm, Monday-Friday, and 10am-3pm, Saturdays, October 8-31, 1997. The London Institute, The London College of Printing, 10 Back Hill, London EC1. Details: Cuba Solidarity Campaign,telephone 0171 263 6452 or check the Cuba pages on the Net.

Copyright James Leavey, 1997.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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