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Cuba, 5 March 1960 | Alberto Korda

The defining portrait of a revolutionary.

Guerrillero Heroico, or "heroic guerrilla", is the title of this photo by the Cuban photographer Alberto Korda of Che Guevara. It was taken at the memorial service for victims of the Coubre explosion. Roughly 75 people died and 200 were injured in the incident, involving a French ship carrying Belgian-made ammunitions in Havana harbour.

In the aftermath of the explosion, Guevara, a trained doctor, had reportedly spent hours giving medical assistance to the victims.

Guevara is a polarising figure in world history. Held up as an anti-imperialist idol and model of courageous conviction, he was also responsible for several executions during the Cuban Revolution and its bloody consolidation: an Argentinian executing Cuban peasants in pursuit of his own social ideals.

The picture encapsulates this enigma. Commentators have seen stoicism and pain in his impassive expression, but perhaps the lasting impression a viewer gets from the potrait is of strength.

Guevara spent the end of his life attempting to inspire insurrection against imperialism. Such was his power that his eventual killers were keen to prove his mortality.

The photo was originally rejected for publication. Korda's employers, the Revolución, preferred shots of Fidel Castro and the French philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, who had travelled to Cuba. Upon Guevara's death in 1967, Sartre said he was "not only an intellectual, but also the most complete human being of our age".

Korda's refusal to seek royalties for the vast circulation of this photograph has helped it become the ultimate symbol of Marxist revolution and anti-imperialist struggle. Only in 2000, when Smirnoff decided to use it in a vodka advertisement, did Korda sue.

Next: Beirut, 15 August 2006 | Spencer Platt

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This image features in the 50 Greatest Political Photographs (part one) special double issue of the NS. You can order your copy here.

The judges were Jason Cowley, Jonathan Dimbleby, Stuart Franklin, Rebecca McClelland and Jon Snow.