Che Guevara – What is it about his picture?


Right, another quick film review then. We went to see “Chevolution” the other night, a documentary about the famous photograph of Che Guevara. The film does a fairly good job delivering the historic facts about the picture’s origins (it was taken by Alberto “Korda” Diaz in 1960) and how it became the most reproduced photograph of a human being. Unfortunately, some of the people asked to comment on the image’s cultural and political significance are not doing a very good job at that and rather deliver some lofty polemics. Here are some of the deeper insights I distilled from “Chevolution”.

The film is sort of guided by a very reasonable and intriguing question: Why has this particular image of Che Guevara become such a cultural icon and the most reproduced photograph of a human being? As you may expect, this is a tricky one.

I agree with some of the commentators in the film who say that the image of Che has been taken out of its historical context. That’s a good place to start if one wants to explain why it has become so ubiquitous. We don’t immediately and primarily think of the Cuban revolution, of Che and Fidel violently overthrowing the Batista regime. The image of Che has acquired a meaning outside that setting. Once the image has been removed from the historical context, people can happily appropriate it to their respective time and place. This seems to have worked extremely well with the image of Che Guevara.

Some say it’s about revolution

What is this universal meaning that the image communicates so well? Some say it’s about “revolution” in the political sense, about overcoming some evil political powers and replacing them with love, peace, and harmony. I think that’s too specific. It’s true that the image started out as a symbol of political revolution, but ultimately it reaches far deeper.

At the lowest common denominator, the image of Che represent being against something. That something is usually portrayed as the mainstream, as conformist, as centrist. It doesn’t actually matter how well this something is defined, but it’s important that you can be against it. Their might not even be anything in particular that people are trying to object to. But when they wear a Che Guevara t-shirt, it means that they’re against it anyways.

To be against something then becomes associated with some form of hedonism, with individual freedom. “Live life the way you want to”. For me, that’s what the Che image portrays and that’s why it has become so ubiquitous as a cultural symbol. Why this particular image? Good question. The film suggests it had to do with Copyrights laws – which were not enforced in Cuba at the time the photograph spread so that any street artist or designer could adopt it. Another explanation is that Che Guevara is apparently a fairly attractive man.

On those t-shirts

Finally, on the point whether buying a t-shirt with the Che Guevara image betrays the revolutionary’s ideals. Well, that discussion would really require a close look at those ideals and how they worked out in practice. I sympathize a little with the Cuban interviewed in the film who says that Che Guevara violently helped to establish a suppressive communist regime still in power today. So if you take the image of Che to represent a historical figure, you would need to interpret his achievements first before judging about his image on a t-shirt.

I would rather go with the understanding of the image as representing the non-historical, cultural meaning I described above. When people buy the t-shirt, they buy something to enhance their self-representation in a certain way – “look at me, I’m living life the way I want to.” And that’s identity building in the age of capitalism, right there.

One response to “Che Guevara – What is it about his picture?

  1. I agree with your assessment, seems like a cultural symbol. Still have to watch that movie.

    Anyway, I’ve been planning for some time now to eventually get my first meta-Guevara t-shirt:

    I think it’s hillarious.

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