Seeing with the heart

Published : Dec 20, 2002 00:00 IST

On Alberto Korda, the photographic chronicler of the Cuban revolution.

THIRTY-FIVE years after his death, Ernesto Che Guevara, the popular revolutionary hero who was killed by United States-trained militiamen in the Bolivian jungles in 1967, continues to inspire people aspiring for social change. His extraordinary courage and passionate devotion to the cause of social change throughout the world have made him a revolutionary icon. Nothing symbolises this better than a photograph of him taken at a memorial service on March 5, 1960, in Havana, Cuba.

No other image apart from the one of Marilyn Monroe standing at a subway grid has been reproduced as many times in history. That photograph of Che, with his long hair flowing from underneath his beret with a star affixed to it, his eyes gazing into the distance, can be found on posters, subway walls and countless consumer articles such as T-shirts, mugs, key chains, wallets and cigarette lighters all over the world. It also adorns walls across Cuba where Che is loved for the part he played in the cause of the revolution. However, the man who took that photograph, Alberto Diaz Gutierrez, known to the world as Alberto Korda, never made anything for himself from the image he gave the world.

Korda was born in 1928, the same year as Che Guevara. He died in May 2001 while attending one of his many exhibitions round the world, in Paris. The life of the photographer reflected the transformation that the revolution effected in Cuban society. Korda was a fashion and public relations photographer in pre-revolution Cuba. In an interview he gave Pacifica Radio in 2000, Korda said that "the beauty of women was the first expression of my photography". He said that while publicity photography brought him more money, he enjoyed fashion photography more. In fact, Korda went on to marry one of Cuba's famous models. He is said to have named his studio Korda because it sounded like Kodak, the photographic products company; however, according to another version, he liked the name because he admired the film director, Alexander Korda.

The revolution turned his career in a completely different direction. Korda said he "fell in love with the Revolution and its heroes". He photographed Fidel Castro's entrance into Havana in January 1959, with Camillo Cienfuegos, another notable Cuban revolutionary, by his side. Although Korda was not a photojournalist then, he took this picture to Revolucion, the newspaper of the Cuban revolutionaries, which published it. Four months later, Revolucion asked Korda to accompany Fidel on his first trip abroad after the revolution, to Venezuela. Commenting on his relationship with Fidel, Korda said it was "distant at first, but I was very happy to photograph what I loved and still love the Revolution and Fidel".

Although Korda is best known for the Che picture, titled "Guerrillero Heroico" (the Heroic Guerrilla), he has left a rich legacy of images of the key moments of the Cuban revolution as it unfolded from the 1960s under the leadership of Fidel Castro. For ten years after the revolution in 1959 he was the Cuban leader's personal photographer, taking intimate portraits of Fidel and Che, both at public receptions and in their personal moments, playing chess or golf, or fishing. During this period he took more than 12,000 photographs documenting the revolution as it unfolded. He photographed ordinary folk in factories and farms in Cuba. Korda is said to have attributed the turning point in his life to the picture he took of a poverty-struck child in rural Cuba just after the revolution. He said he was moved by the sight of a little girl playing with her own toy, a wooden block with a rag, staring at him and his photographic paraphernalia in amazement.

Korda accompanied Fidel on several of his missions outside Cuba, including the eventful trip to the United Nations headquarters in New York in 1960. Years later, reminiscing on this trip, Korda said that Fidel's entourage came prepared with tents to pitch in the gardens at the U.N. because of the hostile attitude of the U.S. government. Fidel stayed in a hotel in Harlem and went round the black neighbourhoods. Korda said that he particularly enjoyed the reception he received at the bar run by the famous heavyweight boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson.

Fidel went to the Soviet Union in 1963 at the invitation of Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev, and he received a hero's welcome. The Soviet Union had provided support to the newly liberated island nation even as its giant neighbour, the U.S., subjected it to an economic blockade. This confrontation peaked in 1962 during what is generally referred to as the "Cuban missile crisis". In reality, soon after the revolution, the U.S. government initiated covert and overt operations to subvert the revolution. Among Korda's pictures are those that document the popular mobilisation of men and women to defend their country against the military might of a far more powerful adversary.

Wherever Korda went, at photographic exhibitions or while talking to youth about photography, he would invariably be asked about that famous image of Che and how he created it. This is how he described it to Pacifica: "This photograph is not the product of knowledge or technique. It was really coincidence, pure luck." Korda was one among the 20 to 30 photographers below the grandstand that day and Che made a brief appearance at the front of the stage, for barely a minute. Korda managed to take just two shots of Che - one horizontal and one vertical. He rejected the vertical shot because a head covered Che's shoulder; he cropped the horizontal shot and gave it to Revolucion. French writers Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were among those present at the memorial service for 136 people killed in an explosion that destroyed a vessel loaded with weapons for the Cuban government. Ironically, Revolucion did not use Korda's pictures of Che; it carried his other pictures, of Castro and Sartre and Beauvoir. The Che pictures remained forgotten until after his death in Bolivia.

Dr. Zhivago

Ironically, the popularity of the Che photograph prompted its commercial exploitation by those who had nothing to do with his ideals and values. Leica, the manufacturer of the camera that Korda used to take the picture, used the Che image in its promotional material. A caption asks prospective buyers of Leica cameras: "How revolutionary do you want your picture to be?" Although Leica attributed the picture to him, its promotional material described Korda as an agricultural worker. The last straw came when Smirnoff ran an advertisement campaign using the Che picture for its "spicy" vodka. The print and billboard campaign used Che's picture and superimposed it with a hammer and sickle the sickle in the shape of a chilli. In 2000, Korda sued the advertising agency, Lowe Lintas, and Rex Features, the picture agency that supplied the image for the campaign, in a London court. He said that the use of Che's image for selling vodka was a "slur on his name". He pointed out that Che "never drank himself, was not a drunk, and drink should not be associated with his immortal memory". The companies made a "substantial payment" to Korda the first time he ever got anything for the pictures in an out-of-court settlement. Characteristically, Korda turned over the major portion of the compensation to a children's hospital in Cuba.

Korda is just one among a clutch of illustrious Cuban photographers who have captured on film the saga of a courageous people fighting heavy odds. One critic, in an introduction to an exhibition of Cuban photographers in New York in 1985, pointed out that these artists had captured "from the inside" what had been "consistently distorted, when not ignored, by outside media". The critic remarked that Cuban photographers matured as "picture-makers in an unprecedented situation, one that assumed the atmosphere of trust, and the sharing of fundamental values". In an interview he gave in Seattle in 1998, Korda said that economic hardships had made photography a difficult art to practice in Cuba. He said that cameras, film, photographic paper and chemicals and machinery were expensive in Cuba.

Although Korda is the most famous face of Cuban photography, there are also others who have played a part in portraying revolutionary Cuba. For instance, there is Raul Corrales, who is best known for the classic picture taken in 1959, showing guerrillas on horseback entering the United Fruit Company, symbolically re-enacting a takeover of the plantations during the 1895 War of Independence. Cuban photographers, pointed out one critic, have, since the revolution, reflected the reality of Cuban life, that while they have been "burdened by the gravest material problems" they "have been liberated from general grief". Korda epitomised that transition in Cuban photography from one that depicted Cuba as a "paradise island" to one undergoing social churning.

After his ten-year stint as Fidel's photographer, Korda turned to underwater photography, his other great passion. During his 12-year association with the Cuban Academy of Sciences, he explored the depths around the island. At the end of his tenure he left behind "an archive with images of practically every underwater creature fish corals, sponges and many others that lives around the island". International experts say this "substantial body" of Korda's work has been largely unexplored.

Korda's advice to aspiring young photographers was: "Forget the camera, forget the lens, forget all of that. With any four-dollar camera, you can capture the best picture." He was fond of paraphrasing a quote from the The Little Prince by the French writer, Antoine de Saint Exupery: "You can only see with your heart. That which is essential is invisible to the eye." The Che picture is emblematic of the quote, Korda said, and that was what guided his life.

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