THERE ARE PLENTY of books about Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s life. This is not one of them. This is the story of what happened to “El Che” after his death, recounted as a biography of the most reproduced photographic image ever: the portrait that Cuban photographer Alberto Korda serendipitously captured at a state funeral on March 5, 1960. Che’s Afterlife tells this iconic graphic’s own remarkable story for the first time. Guevara himself is an important factor in that account. But the book ultimately concerns itself with the people who outlived Che, since they are the ones who most deserve credit (or the blame, some might say) for turning his face into the most enduring political brand of our age.
Parts of journalist Michael Casey’s smooth-flowing, highly readable book are concerned with the famous contributors to the Che myth – Fidel Castro, for example, the Cuban Revolution’s brand-manager-in-chief, and other political figures who have used the Korda symbol to bolster their own appeal. It reveals their efforts to project Che as a lasting standard-bearer of revolutionary zeal even as the economist interests behind promoting the image have changed in the post-Cold War era. The narrative also follows the artists who gave the Che icon life – the photographer Korda, of course, but also the many Andy Warhol-influenced pop artists who embellished his image and turned it into a sexy graphic. Sometimes it seeks out those who’ve contributed negative energy to the icon-building enterprise – the Cuban-American “freedom fighters” of Miami, for example, who vociferously attack the Che icon and in so doing unwittingly lend it more power. Ultimately, however, Che’s Afterlife is about millions of lesser-known souls who’ve invested their often contradictory beliefs and desires into a single, frozen-in-time face, many of them finding a source of empowerment and hope where others see disorder and violence. Casey shows us that although the Che icon has been subject to exploitation for political and commercial gain for four decades – by governments and their dissenters, by publicists and self-serving merchants – at the end of the day, it is a product of society at large, as are all icons. Readers are introduced to the Che icon as a character in a storyline that they themselves helped write. This book, in essence, is about us.
Part travelogue, part historical documentary, part social commentary, Che’s Afterlife traces the Korda image’s passage from casual snapshot to international symbol of rebellion as it evolves inexorably into a copyright-contested brand stamped on everything from T-shirts to condoms. With an eye for detail and for the forgotten moments of history that are all but lost on the cutting room floors of photography studios and newsrooms, Casey unravels the myths behind the image – not so much as an iconoclast unveiling an elusive truth but as a probing investigator who is mapping the icon’s DNA. As he follows it across the Americas and through cyberspace, he shows us why, after so many years, the mercurial Che icon still ignites passions, and then presents the image as a reflection on how we view ourselves. Che’s Afterlife is a unique, insightful commentary on the global capitalist economy and our information age, one that demonstrates the supremacy of images and brands within that system. It is also a thought-provoking examination of the human condition, of the hopes and desires that give power to those same images and brands.