People think I became a millionaire with that photo – but I didn’t get a thing from everyone who used it on matches, T-shirts and wine bottles.
From an interview in the Guardian in 2010:
In 1958, a year before the revolution, Magnum wanted to send me to Cuba because they had contacts with the rebels. I’d just spent six months in South America and said no, so I missed everything.
Fortunately, a few years later, I got another phone call. Laura Bergquist, a star reporter with Look magazine, had met Che Guevara at the UN in October 1962, after the Cuban missile crisis. She bugged him so much that he told her: “If you get permission from the CIA or the Pentagon, you are invited to Cuba, and I will show you what is really going on.” She got the green light from the Americans – and I went with her.
We arrived at Che’s office on the eighth floor of the Hotel Riviera in Havana. At that time he was the number-two man in Cuba – he was the minister for industry, and director of the Banco Nacional. His face was on the two peso note. I saw the blinds were drawn and, after we were introduced, I asked him in French: “Che, can I open the blinds? I need some light.” But he said no. I thought, well, it’s your face, not mine.
Immediately, Bergquist and Che started a furious ideological dogfight. She had to take back a story for the Americans, who were still angry about the revolution, and he was trying to convince her that what happened had to happen. For two and a half hours I could just dance around them with my camera. It was an incredible opportunity to shoot Che in all kinds of situations: smiling, furious, from the back, from the front. I used up eight rolls of film. He didn’t look at me once, he was so engaged with trying to convince her with maps and graphs. She was a chain-smoker, and he occasionally lit up one of his cigars.
We went back to New York, and Look ran a 16- or 20-page story. This picture was only an eighth of a page. It certainly wasn’t a photo essay, like the one Henri Cartier-Bresson did for Life magazine at the same time. He was in town with us, but only got to shoot Che at a press conference.
After Che died in 1967, this picture took on a great deal of iconic significance. Even before then, some kids from Zurich approached me wanting to make a poster from it. I never heard whether Che liked it or not; there was no response from Cuba at all. A photograph is a moment – when you press the button, it will never come back. This picture is famous thanks to the chap with the cigar, not to me.