Alborta's post mortem photo of Guevara, 1967
*It was inevitable that right wing leaders throughout South America would seek Guevara wherever he went, presumably to kill him once and for all. The end came when Guevara's plan for fomenting revolution in Bolivia failed in 1967. A Cuban exile, working as a CIA Special Activities Division operative, advised Bolivian troops during the hunt for Guevara in October of that year. Bolivian President René Barrientos immediately ordered that Guevara be executed, but that his orders had to be denied.
*It is probable that Che would have been compared to Christ being taken down from the cross in any case. He was in his 30s when he died, he had long hair and a beard, and he gave his life for the cause of the working class and the peasants in a deeply Catholic country. And probably his image would only grown in its inspiration – that change would arrive in Bolivia and that the poor could eventually live in dignity.
But a photograph emerged that seemed to me to be a powerful visual and artistic reminder of Che’s redemptive powers. After his execution, Guevara's body was lashed to the landing skids of a helicopter and flown to nearby Vallegrande, where photographs were taken of him lying on a concrete slab in a dismal laundry room. As hundreds of weeping locals filed past the body, many of these deeply Catholic people believed that Guevara's corpse was Christ-like in its hideous suffering. Freddie Alborta was the photographer who immortalised this last scene.*
I am not sure how Alborta’s post-mortem photograph of Che Guevara was released, but English art critic John Berger observed that it resembled two famous paintings: Rembrandt's very large work, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp 1632 and Andrea Mantegna's smaller Lamentation over the Dead Christ 1490. Berger had published many humanist essays and reviews in the New Statesman, and his strongly stated opinions on modern art made him a controversial and somewhat political figure. An early collection of essays, Permanent Red, made a clear statement of his own political commitments.
Rembrandt, Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632, Royal Gallery Mauritshuis.
Mantegna, Lamentation over the Dead Christ, 1490, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.
The powerful Catholic Church did little to condemn the greed of the ruling class in South America; instead of promoting social change and justice, it opted for the good order of the status quo. So it is doubly confusing for a humanist left wing art critic to be citing classical paintings in relation to a Marxist revolutionary from South America. However I think he was correct.
John Hess was also interested in the representation of Che Guevara as Christ, particularly following the publication of the post mortem photo in 1967. He quoted an Argentinian film maker who interviewed Freddy Alborta decades later and drew out the circumstances of the photograph. What were Alborta’s feelings and impressions? Did he know of John Berger’s interpretations of Alborta’s own photo?
Alborta did not, but he was very aware that this was not simple photo journalism. The photographer said he worked very carefully, knowing that he was in the presence of an already legendary figure, a Christ figure even, and that such a moment comes once in a life time.
Read: John Berger "Che Guevara: the moral factor", in The Urban Review, Volume 8, Number 3, September, 1975