Joseph Koudelka and photography as a testimony

Josef Koudelka © Bohemia, negative, 1966; print, 1967
Engineer of sensitivity: from training to realization

The roads that lead to one’s vocation are many.  In the case of Josef Koudelka, they manifested themselves at a young age when, with his 6×6 Bakelite he began to photograph what surrounded him, including his family. Although his studies allowed him to graduate in Engineering in 1961, Koudelka’s attitude was directed in a completely different direction. This was confirmed by his first photo exhibition held just after he reached his academic goal. The completion of his studies brought with it the awareness that sooner or later a drastic decision would be inevitable. Thus, although he still delayed that moment by continuing to work as an aeronautical engineer in Prague and Bratislava, in 1967 he decided to be done permanently with that world to devote himself full time to photography. And he was very close to complete his first work of art.

Josef Koudelka, Magnum Photos, CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Straznice. 1966. Festival of gypsy music
1967-68: the Photo report in Romania, the anonymous films in Prague

He didn’t even have time to finish his experience with the gypsy communities in Romania, just two days before the Soviet invasion, when Koudelka left immediately for Prague. In August 1968 he was able to testify with his own eyes, and even more with his camera, the other side of Socialism, the one that is anything but human. The side that followed the Warsaw Pact that ended the autonomy of Czechoslovakia. The tanks entered the Czechoslovak capital while the population opposed them with all their might, to the point of confusing the troops by reversing or removing road signs. And all this did not escape the lens of the photographer, who with his photographic report marked a turning point in the history of his nation. Among the most significant images there is the one of the arm with the watch that overlooks a street in the city, marking the time when the invasion took place. A way to make this social defeat eternal and to give a time, of contrast, to the emptiness that the invasion created in common memory. Given the extraordinary circumstances, Koudelka had to secretly send his films across the border to be able to publish them in the London Sunday Times under the pseudonym of “Prague Photographer” in order not to suffer subsequent persecutions.

Josef Koudelka, A brown coal mine, The Black Triangle, Czech Republic, 1991
Josef Koudelka, Invasion 68: Prague Prague, Czechoslovakia. August, 1968. © Josef Koudelka, Magnum Photos
Contemporary traveller: the political asylum and the discovery of Europe

“I was afraid to go back to CzechoslovakiaKoudelka said later “because I knew that if they wanted to find out the identity of the unknown photographer, they could do it”. For this reason, Koudelka joined Magnum Photos in 1970, and applied for political asylum in the UK, remaining there for over a decade. Being a photographer of “travellers” he himself became a nomad without a destination. With his camera and little else, Koudelka travelled throughout Europe to witness the social and sociological diversity that each nation manifests in its own way.

Josef Koudelka © France, 1979    
Koudelka: legacy and immortality in the film

Human relations, isolation and even death are the subjects that the Czech photographer is most passionate about and that are still protagonists of his photographic exhibitions around the world. “Gypsies” (1975-77), first as a book and then as a traveling exhibition, and “Exiles” (1988), a book-collection of his photographic works exhibited at different times and exhibitions, remain among the masterpieces of contemporary photography. The intermittency of the human element in the fullness of the landscapes and in all its contradictions is best represented here not just with photographs of emotional impact, but with visual stories that go beyond reality because of their brutal truth. And the photographic dialogue opened over forty years ago remains unfinished to this day, although Koudelka was able to return home in the 1990s and despite the notoriety that allowed him to exhibit his works in major international museums. “I never stay in one country more than three months. Why? Because I was interested in seeing, and if I stay longer I become blind”.

Martha Pulina