Koudelka: Invasion 1968
Aug 22, 2018 – Jan 13, 2019 / NPG

Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

On August 20, 1968, a Czech theater photographer named Josef Koudelka took to the streets to document the chaos unfolding on his doorstop: some 250,000 soldiers from five Warsaw Pact countries were sent by leaders in Moscow to destroy the “Prague Spring.” Koudelka reflected in the book Magnum Stories (Phaidon, 2014) that intuitively, he knew the invasion would be an important event for him to remember. “It was my country,” he recounted; the invasion had directly concerned his life. He stepped outside and thrust himself into the frenzy, documenting as a way to place memory onto film, and under strict Soviet control, this spontaneity could have cost him his life.

 

Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

“The only other photographer I saw was an absolute maniac who had a couple of old-fashioned cameras on string round his neck and a cardboard box over his shoulders, who was actually just going up to the Russians, clambering over their tanks and photographing them openly. He had the support of the crowd, who would move in and surround him whenever the Russians tried to take his film. I felt either this guy was the bravest man around or or the biggest lunatic around.” – Ian Berry, who is said to be the only Western photographer reporting the invasion, in reference to Josef Koudelka.

The nation of Czechoslovakia came under communist Soviet rule in 1948, and through the 1960s the economy had become stagnant. In January 1968 the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Antonin Novotny, was replaced with Alexander Dubček in the hopes of improving the country’s economy. Dubček wished to offer Czechoslovakia “socialism with a human face”, and wanted to push for a kind of democratization of the country while attempting to keep it under control.

 

Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

A drastic change felt by the citizens of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was the end of censorship under Dubček, resulting in a renewed freedom of press and speech that grew louder and louder throughout the country. Citizens began not only reading about political opinions and new democratic ideas, but also publicly debating and expressing their desire for reform on governmental policies. Come June 1968, many reformers were seeking rapid transformation in policies from Dubček and tensions rose as conservatives believed those wishing for reform were beginning to step out of line.

In fear that other Eastern European countries may follow suit and eventually unite in a rebellion against the Soviet Union, leaders in Moscow decided to send soldiers to intimidate the public in order to re-establish a conservative government and pro-Soviet spirit, and would later justify their use of force with the Brezhnev Doctrine. Soldiers rolled in and “historians say killed 108 Czech and Slovak citizens during the first four months of the invasion, many of which were run over by Russian tanks and lorries.” Citizens were given the choice to conform to a normalized Soviet society, or lose their careers and the opportunity to send their children to school. This left a lasting psychological impression on those who to this day dimly recall life during and after the invasion.

 

Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

Earlier this year, on the day of the 50th anniversary of the invasion, BBC released an article in conversation with witnesses from the Czech Republic. One witness, Ivana Dolezalova, describes attempting to naively reason with the soldiers who were taunting citizens with their rhetoric and military weapons. “We had bare hands, no weapons,” she explained, and her pleas with the soldiers abruptly ended when one mistook a camera for a gun and began firing shots into the air.

Living through the tension and violence, Koudelka left the negatives in the film canister; “there wasn’t time for that” he wrote in regards to processing the film. He processed it some months later and left the negatives with a friend who showed them to the politician and now former president of the Czech Republic, Vacláv Havel. The photographs were then passed on and taken to the United States by the curator of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, Eugene Ostroff, and were shown to the president of Magnum, Elliott Erwitt, who asked Koudelka if the photographs could be printed and distributed around the world.

 

Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

Koudelka reluctantly agreed under the condition that they be printed and credited to a fake name “P.P.” for “Prague Photographer”, in fear of being sought after by Soviet officials and accused of rebelling against the government. Once the photographs were published in 1969 for the one year anniversary of the invasion, he recalls the strange feeling while seeing his photographs in newspapers and not being able to mention that they were taken by him. He would not admit that he took the photographs until after the death of his father in 1984.

In 1969 Erwitt offered Koudelka a chance to photograph gypsies in western Europe for Magnum and in 1970, he received a three month visa to leave Czechoslovakia. In fear of Czech police discovering that the photographs of the invasion were taken by him, Koudelka sought refuge in England and Paris, and would not return to Czechoslovakia until 1989.

 

Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

Koudelka’s photographs of the 1968 invasion evoke the photographers’ spontaneity and courage, while at the same time appear thoughtfully composed. There is a chilling intimacy between photographer and subject, at angles which envelop the viewer and display frenzied movements and an up-close, honest portrayal of helplessness and outrage. His juxtaposition of armed, unaffected soldiers and the heaviness of the citizens’ expressions through the gritty contrast of black and white film recalls Dolenzalova’s recount of naively attempting to reason with soldiers sent to carry out an order.

“I think the series of my photographs of the Russian invasion are important as a historical document, it shows what really happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968. But perhaps a few of the photographs – the best ones – are something more. They are the ones where it’s not important who’s Czech and who’s Russian, the ones where the important thing is that one person has a gun and the other hasn’t. And the one who hasn’t is, in fact, the stronger.” –Koudelka

For the mark of the 50th year since the end of the Prague Spring, Koudelka’s photographs of the 1968 invasion and a spatial video installation and archival footage by film director Jan Němec are currently on view at the Prague National Gallery.

 

Josef Koudelka: Invasion 1968 & Archival Footage by Jan Němec
August 22, 2018 – January 13, 2019 / National Prague Gallery
Please visit the exhibition page >

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