The events leading up to the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia were, for many observers looking back, inevitable. After two decades of oppressive Communist rule under the auspices of the Soviet regime, the country was ready for radical change. When Alexander Dubček was elected as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia the politician seized the opportunity for democratic reform. A period of ‘liberalization’ known as the Prague Spring was enacted, allowing an expansion of citizen civil rights and liberties, partial democratization, and decentralization of the economy. Restrictions on press freedom, travel and free-speech were also loosened. All much to the vexation of the USSR, who, in between failed negotiations with Dubček, watched closely.
On August 21, 1968, forces from five of the countries grouped in the Warsaw Pact invaded. Tanks flooded Prague’s streets as residents buffered the sidewalks and buildings, protecting the Czechoslovak Radio Centre and destroying street-signs to misdirect the Eastern Bloc invaders. During the political turbulence, Josef Koudelka was moved to document his country during the upheaval. Here, he recalls the events of that defining year and the story behind his beginnings as a Magnum photographer–as published in Magnum Stories (Phaidon, 2014).
The Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 concerned my life directly. It was my country. I took these photographs for myself, not for a magazine. It was only by chance that they were published. I wasn’t a reporter. I had never photographed anything that you would call ‘news’. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was confronted with that kind of situation. I responded to it. I knew it was important to photograph, so I photographed. I didn’t think much about what I was doing.
"I knew it was important to photograph, so I photographed"
- Josef Koudelka
Later some people told me I could have been killed, but I hadn’t considered that at the time. I don’t think people who knew me thought I was able to photograph that sort of situation the way I had. Neither had I. Since then I’ve never lived through or photographed anything like that. During the invasion, I just took photographs but didn’t develop them. There wasn’t time for that. It was only later that I processed everything. I left behind some photographs with my friend Anna Fárová. She showed them to various people, including Vacláv Havel.
He offered to take them to America, where he had been invited by Arthur Miller. but then he was not allowed to go. Several photographs were taken out of the country by Eugene Ostroff, curator of the photography department at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, who had been visiting Prague. In New York he showed them to his friend, the photographer Elliott Erwitt, who was then president of the Magnum photo agency and also a friend of Fárová. Erwitt wanted to know whether there were other photographs apart from the ones he send seen, and whether I would be willing to send the negatives to Magnum.
"One person has a gun and the other hasn’t. And the one who hasn’t is, in fact, the stronger"
- Josef Koudelka
I wasn’t too keen to do that but Fárová assured me that I didn’t need to worry — this was a serious organization. In the end, the negatives got safely out of the country and arrived in New York. Magnum supervised the printing of the photographs and their distribution all over the world. They had to be published without my name and were prepared for publication in leading magazines of many countries to commemorate the first anniversary of the Russian invasion in August 1969. At the same time photographs were also assembled by Erwitt as a news clip for television.
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.
"It was a strange feeling to see my photographs published and not to be able to tell anyone they were mine"
- Josef Koudelka
In August 1969 I was in London with the Prague-based Theatre Behind the Gate, which was giving guest performances there. It was a Sunday morning. The photographs came out in the Sunday Times magazine, the supplement of a large newspaper in Britain. Members of the theatre company showed the magazine to each other. It was a strange feeling to see my photographs published and not to be able to tell anyone they were mine.
Later, during my stay in London I managed to get in touch with Erwitt in New York. We decided that Magnum should send a letter offering me a grant for three months to photograp gypsies in western Europe. After I had returned to Prague and the letter had arrived, I managed to put together all the necessary letters of recommendation. Then, a friend at the Czechoslovak Ministry of Culture helped me to obtain a passport with permission to stay abroad for 80 days. I left Czechoslovakia in May 1970. I wanted to see all the places where gypsies gather.
I began in the South of France at the gypsy pilgrimage in Les Saintes Maries de la Mer. From there, I went to the Epsom horse races near London, then to the Appleby horse fair on the Scottish border, and then to Ireland. When I passed through Paris, I visited the Magnum office. There they told me that, although my photographs were published without my name, it would not be difficult for the Czech police to find out who the photographer was. They advised me not to return to Prague. I decided to stay in England. In order to avoid reprisals against my family Magnum continued to distribute my photographs of the 1968 invasion without mentioning my name. Only after the death of my father did I admit that they were mine. It was on the occasion of my first big exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, in 1984, which was curated by Robert Delpire and organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain.
"Only after the death of my father did I admit that they were mine"
- Josef Koudelka
In Czechoslovakia, the photographs were published for the first time 22 years after they were taken, in a special supplement to the weekly Respekt, in August 1990. I was able to return to Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, where I made pictures in the ‘Black Triangle’. I was fascinated by that landscape and it was just asking to be photographed by a panoramic camera.