Interview with Kelly Westhoff and Jen Paulus: CheSpotting.com
Travel Interviews: Eva Holland talks Che and the meaning of his ubiquitous image with the founders of a new travel photography site
05.08.09 | 11:43 AM ET
Spot Che. Snap a pic. Send it in.
Simple enough, right? That’s the idea behind Che Spotting, a new site that aims to collect travelers’ photos of Che’s iconic image from across the globe.
I caught up with Che Spotting’s cofounders, Twin Cities-based travel fanatics Kelly Westhoff and Jen Paulus, to talk about Che Guevara, the famous photo, and why Che seems to pop up almost everywhere.
World Hum: Che Spotting is just a few weeks old, and already you’ve posted photos from Minnesota to South Africa to Vietnam. What do you think it is about Che Guevara that captivates so many people, across generational, geographical, political and linguistic lines?
Kelly Westhoff: These are great questions, and they are ones that we’ve asked many times. I wish I had a really succinct, sound-bite answer, but I don’t. This is the best I’ve been able to come up with: Che is in the eye of the beholder.
Jen Paulus: Yeah. Everyone seems to have their own idea about what Che symbolizes. Take the featured picture that’s on the site right now. It’s a picture of man leading a protest for a democratic system of government in Hong Kong. The man wants democracy and he’s wearing a Che T-shirt. That’s really ironic. Clearly, for him, Che is symbolizing something completely different than what the image means inside of Cuba.
Westhoff: I think that Che symbolizes change, or “Che-ange.”
There was a Robin Hood mentality behind a lot of what Che wanted to do. He saw political, economic and social systems that he thought were crooked and unjust. He wanted to bust up the strongholds of the privileged elite and redistribute wealth, education and healthcare among the masses. What’s not to admire about that? There are movements to do these same things going on inside the United States right now.
Of course, how Che went about it might not have been the best, but his initial intentions were solid. I think this is where a lot of the confusion stems from about who Che was and what his image means. There is an inconsistency between what he wanted and how it came to fruition. Adding to this confusion is the romanticized image of Che as a carefree traveler, the young man before he got all wrapped up in politics and revolution. The movie version of “The Motorcycle Diaries” that was out a few years ago really fueled that view of Che.
Paulus: Che the traveler is romantic. He took that trip around the same time that Jack Kerouac was writing “On the Road,” which puts him in with the Beatniks. All of those guys are symbolic of a time in your life when you can just drop out and travel with nothing more than a few bucks in your pocket and have these life altering experiences that will influence you into your future.
Anyone who has ever gone on a trip like that will tell you that it changed their life forever. We idealize those memories and I think it’s this part of Che that really appeals to the backpacker crowd.
It’s not just about Che as a character, either. Most often, it’s that same iconic image recurring in different contexts. Why is the image itself so compelling?
Westhoff: His rugged good looks? I’ve read articles that have tried to analyze this. They say it’s because [in the iconic Alberto Korda photo] he’s looking up, that this is a sign of hope and optimism that appeals to people.
Paulus: I think the main reason his image has spread so far is because it is an image. You can be illiterate and still recognize Che.
Westhoff: And now that the news media has gone global, I think the Che image is something that protesters, guerrilla fighters, reporters and photographers are all drawn to because it speaks for itself, no translation needed.
What do you say to all the Cuban Americans and others who loathe Che, are quick to point out the violence he wrought and see him as anything but a hero?
Westhoff: We’re really trying to make a separation between the man and the image. We’ve really tried to educate ourselves about who he is, so we understand that there’s this really violent side to him. Knowing what we know about him, why are we so drawn to him? My mom hates it, every time she sees me post another picture of Che, she says, “Oh please stop doing that, Kelly, it’s just so Communist!”
We’re not trying to promote Che’s cause or to feed it one way or the other. That’s not what we’re interested in—we’re interested in the spread of the picture, and all the ways the picture is being used. We’re trying to say, isn’t it fascinating that this one image has traveled the world?
Was there a particular Che spotting of your own that prompted you two to start the site? What got your fascination with Che’s image rolling?
Westhoff: When I was 25, I lived in Buenos Aires and taught English. That’s where I first encountered Che. I’d see him on T-shirts and banners, but I didn’t know who he was or what he stood for. I’m pretty sure my introduction to Che Guevara came from a guidebook. I remember a page that explained the Big Three of Argentina: Carlos Gardel, Eva Peron and Che Guevara.
Several years after my time in Argentina, I spent a summer with a friend backpacking in Guatemala. We hopped over the border into Honduras to visit the ruins of Copan, and that’s where I witnessed something that cemented my Che obsession. I watched a local man give a tourist a hug. The tourist was shocked. He’d done nothing to invite the hug. He didn’t know this Honduran guy hanging out on a dusty, unpaved street. After the hug, the local did something even more amazing. He unhooked a chain from around his neck and passed it to the tourist and then he walked off.
The tourist looked down at the necklace and its medallion was an image of Che. The connection? The tourist was wearing a Che T-shirt.
That encounter blew me away. Yes, I thought it was funny, but I also thought it was so touching. Here was this image, and somehow, it sparked a tiny moment of cross-cultural compassion. I’ve always remembered that. I’m pretty sure this was what inspired me to travel to Cuba, to get to the Che source. And once I was in Cuba, well, that was it. I was done for. Che was everywhere.
Paulus: Kelly indoctrinated me. I had no idea who Che was until I went to Cuba. And then being in Cuba with Kelly ... I remember that she was on this quest to buy a Che T-shirt. It was the one souvenir she wanted from Cuba and I was like, who the hell is Che?
The huge Che image in Havana’s Revolutionary Square is what really did it for me. That impressed me. When I got home, I started reading about him and it struck me as really strange that I had been a sociology major in college, and I’d never learned anything about him. That made me want to learn even more. Because of my trip to Cuba and the books I read when I got home, I recognized the image. After that, every time I went on another trip, I would always see him.
Who knows whether it was because Che was having a surge in popularity or because I was more aware of him. Anyway, I’d take a picture of him every time I saw him and email it to Kelly, and she would do the same. About a year ago, we pulled up all the images and realized how many we had. That’s when we came up with the plan for Che Spotting.
What do you hope visitors will learn or take away from Che Spotting?
Paulus: We hope Che Spotting will inspire people to travel. After all, Che would approve of that. He would want people to get out there and see what is going on in the world. Let travel open your eyes and change you.
Finally, I know it’s early days yet, but how do you see the future of Che Spotting? Any big plans?
Westhoff: Ultimately, we would love to see a Che Spotting book, something that compiles the pictures travelers submit to us of their Che images. It could even include travel essays that somehow feature Che. But that will take a while. First, we have to spread the word about the site and get travelers to start submitting pictures.
Right now, we have a voting system rigged up for each picture. People can rate each Che Spotting on a one-to-five scale. I’d love to incorporate some sort of prize system for the pictures that get the most votes. But that would require some Che Spotting funds and right now, this is a labor of love.
Thanks, Kelly and Jen. Good luck with the site.
* The interview has been edited.