“To be in exile is simply to have left one’s country and to be unable to return. Every exile is a different, personal experience. Myself, I wanted to see the world and photograph it. That’s forty-five years I’ve been travelling. I’ve never stayed anywhere more than three months. When I found no more to photograph, it was time to go,” said Czech photographer Josef Koudelka, in an interview published by French newspaper in Le Monde in 2015.
Koudelka’s life has been one of relentless restlessness, constantly travelling and never settling. Having picked up photography in 1967, Koudelka photographed the Soviet invasion of Prague, publishing his photographs under the initials P. P. (Prague Photographer) for fear of reprisal to him and his family. In 1969, he was anonymously awarded the Overseas Press Club’s Robert Capa Gold Medal for those photographs. Koudelka left Czechoslovakia for political asylum in 1970 and shortly thereafter joined Magnum Photos. His constant state of exile began, and he was stateless until being naturalized in France, receiving a French passport in 1987.
Joining Magnum not only gave Koudelka a bank of friends, but also a network of people to help him out and places to stay when he travelled. However, Koudelka did not work as a conventional agency photographer, turning down assignments, and choosing instead to travel and to pursue a personal study. He photographed the gypsy population, minority groups, and everything that is destined to become extinct, to be ‘exiled’ in some way – it became a lifelong journey of photographic documentation that still continues to this day.
"I never accepted any assignment, never photographed for money. I took photographs just for myself"
- Josef Koudelka
“For fifteen years, I didn’t work for anybody. I never accepted any assignment, never photographed for money. I took photographs just for myself. I lived on the minimum. I didn’t need much: a good sleeping bag and some clothes – one pair of shoes, two pairs of socks and a pair of trousers for one year. One jacket and two shirts lasted me for three years,” explained Koudelka in a discussion with Czech author Karel Hvíždala, published in in the 2002 book Josef Koudelka.
"What I needed most was to travel so that I could take photographs"
- Josef Koudelka
“I didn’t have a flat – I didn’t need one. On the contrary, I tried to avoid owning anything. I didn’t pay rent. I realized that I could travel on the money that I would have spent on a flat. What I needed most was to travel so that I could take photographs…I knew that I didn’t need much to function – some food and a good night’s sleep. I learned to sleep anywhere and under any circumstances. I had a rule: ‘Don’t worry where you are going to sleep, so far you’ve slept almost every night, you’ll sleep again tonight. And if you sleep outdoors, you have two choices – to be afraid that something might happen to you and then you won’t sleep well, or accept the fact that anything might happen and get a good night’s sleep, which is the most important thing you need to function well the next day’.”
Set to turn 80 in 2018, Koudelka pondered a more settled future when visiting the Magnum London office in February 2017. When he can no longer travel, “I will be travelling in my contact sheets,” he said. “I have 30,000 contact sheets from 35mm and 10,000 of them I have edited but I have never explored them.”
Earlier in February 2017, Koudelka had opened a dedicated show at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. This exhibition – Exiles – comprises a series of photos taken in Europe and in the U.S. from 1968 to the early 1980s, including some previously unpublished images. The concept is to show how Exiles was made, and also includes an insight into the photographer’s relentless travelling, with the exhibition concluding with an extraordinary series of self-portraits taken by Koudelka in the course of his travels.
"It was a sure sign that his photography had now become something much more personal"
- Clément Chéroux
The curator of the exhibition Clément Chéroux wrote in the accompanying book, La Fabrique d’Exils: “It was a sure sign that his photography had now become something much more personal. He took the experiment even further by taking photographs of himself in the morning and the evening, with the camera held at arm’s length or placed on the ground. These photographs, taken first thing in the morning, in the Magnum offices, the houses of friends or strangers, on the roadside, or in the fields, had been kept secret until now. They are published here for the first time. They cannot really be described as self-portraits, any more than the photos in which his shadow or parts of his body intrude. There is no trace of narcissism in them. The photographer’s image caught in reflection—by definition the most narcissistic form of self-representation—never features in Koudelka’s work. Far from it; he was just underlining the fact that he was taking photographs of what he experienced, and experiencing what he photographed.”