Czechoslovakia by Prague Photographer, 1969


In late 1969, there appeared in The Sunday Times Magazine in the UK and Look Magazine in the US the photoessays on the brutal crushing of the reformist movement in Czechoslovakia a year prior. The original negatives were smuggled out of Prague to Magnum agency via Czech photography critic and curator Anna Farova, and published under the initials P.P. (Prague photographer). The photographer remained anonymous for a while, and the “unknown Czech photographer” was presented with the Robert Capa gold medal for photographs requiring exceptional courage.

Only in 1984, it was revealed that the unknown photographer was Josef Koudelka, a photographer of Gypsies and theatrical life. When the Sunday Times printed his photos, Koudelka was actually in London with a Czech theatre group; he walked out of his hotel near the Aldwych Theatre and saw some members of the theatre group reading the Sunday Times magazine and looking through his photos.

He recalled:

“They showed me the magazine where it said that these pictures had been taken by an unknown photographer from Prague and smuggled out of the country. I could not tell anyone that they were my photographs. It was a very strange feeling. From that moment, I was afraid to go back to Czechoslovakia because I knew that if they wanted to find out who the unknown photographer was, they could do it.”

Before he returned to Prague, Koudelka began making preparations to leave again, this time for good. He talked to Magnum which soon guaranteed to the Czech Ministry of Culture that they had given him a grant to photograph Gypsies across Europe.

Although he was unable to speak English very well then, he took political asylum in England, staying in the large Bayswater flat of fellow Magnum photographer David Hurn. Fearing reprisals to his family, he remained quiet about his photos until his father died.

In early 1968, Alexander Dubcek, the new leader of Czechoslovakia, initiated a series of reforms to create ‘”Communism with a human face.” The resulting freedom of speech and press, decentralization of the economy, freedom to travel abroad, and relaxation of secret police activities led to a period of euphoria known as the Prague Spring. Encouraged by Dubcek’s actions, many Czechs called for far-reaching reforms including neutrality and withdrawal from the Soviet bloc. To forestall the spread of reforms, the Soviet army invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968 and replaced Dubcek with the reactionary old guard.

That week, then 30-year-old Koudelka took over 5,000 photographs on the streets of Prague, often under extreme conditions. He was shot at by a Russian soldier, and pursued through the crowds and into the backstreets around Wenceslas Square. He captured an old man on his way to work, briefcase in hand, stopping to hurl a cobblestone at a Russian tank, a young man holding his coat open as if daring a nervous soldier on a tank to shoot him in the heart, a pretty woman pleading with the Russian commander who stares over her head.

He had a primitive Exakta camera and countless rolls of cinema film that he had bought cheaply from a friend, and which he cut into strips, then draped over his shoulder and fed into the camera. “I used to have to run home to reload, always thinking I was missing something. Once, I think it saved my life. I was reloading when I heard the explosion that killed many people outside the radio station.”

Of all these images, he only selected a handful to smuggle out to the West.




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