The wall and the search for freedom have been the main themes throughout the work of Josef Koudelka. Born in 1938 in Czechoslovakia and an engineer by trade, Koudelka would take up photography at 30 years old, making his first mark as a photographer during the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 that ended the reforms of the Prague Spring.
Smuggled out of the country by the Magnum Agency and published anonymously under the initials P.P (Prague Photographer), the work of Koudelka during the invasion was so prolific that it led many photo editors to think that it was the work of a collective of photographers instead of a single person. Because of this, Koudelka needed to leave, and Magnum helped him to escape to England in 1970, where he applied for political asylum. However, without a true home to be able to go back to, Koudelka became a nomadic photographer, traveling around Europe in search of freedom.
“When I first started to take photographs in Czechoslovakia, I met this old gentleman, this old photographer, who told me a few practical things. One of the things he said was, “Josef, a photographer works on the subject, but the subject works on the photographer.”
A major theme that grew in Koudelka’s work was of the strength of human spirit that shines through a bleak and difficult existence, an existence that mirrored his own. Koudelka’s first major work after the war was a project on the Romani (gypsies) of Eastern Europe, where he embedded himself with the group, often sleeping outside, and leading the Romani to think of him as even poorer than them. He often focused on social and cultural rituals, along with death.
While gypsies were typically looked down upon, Koudelka showed an understanding of them through his photographs, and he photographed them in a respectful and thoughtful manner. Throughout these photographs, you can see glimmers of mutual understanding, and you can often feel the presence of Koudelka just behind the camera. When Koudelka turns his camera on a subject, it is clear that he is also photographing himself in a way.
“Whatever I do, essentially, I do for myself. I didn’t do “Gypsies” to save Gypsies because even I know I can’t save them. So everything I do for myself. If it helps something, I am very pleased. I go around the world and try to discover what interests me and what has something to do with me. For that reason, I never work for a magazine, I never did any fashion, I never made any publicity. For me, a project must interest me and have something to do with me.”
“Nothing is permanent — that’s also what I learned from the Gypsies. Bresson used to tell me that your problem is that you don’t think about the future, and that’s exactly what I learned from the Gypsies. Not to worry much about the future. And I learned that to be alive I don’t need much. So I never worried about money because I knew in the past if I needed the money I borrowed it so I didn’t lose the time.”
The next project that Koudelka would work on turned into the famous book Exiles, publish in 1988. The photographs were deeply personal and mostly taken throughout his travels in Europe and the United States after escaping his home. While the photographs are dark, lonely, brooding, and alienated, they also show the perseverance and strength of people.
“Koudelka’s unsentimental, stark, brooding, intensely human imagery reflect his own spirit, the very essence of an exile who is at home wherever his wandering body finds haven in the night.” – Cornell Capa
One of his most famous images from the book, of a dog scavenging a bleak wintery landscape, is reminiscent of a self-portrait. You can imagine Koudelka just behind the dog scavenging with his camera.
“I became what I am from how I was born, but also what photography made from me. Other people ask me, ‘Are you still Czech or are you French?’ I don’t know who I am — people who see me might say who I am. I am the product of all this continuous traveling, but I know where I come from.”
For the last 25 years, Koudelka has been working on a landscape project – “I have been interested in how contemporary man influences the landscape.” His landscapes are bleak and ominous, show the ravages of industry, and even though they are devoid of people, they all show the weight of people on their surroundings. They are both ugly and beautiful.
“The changes taking place in this part of Europe are enormous and very rapid. One world is disappearing. I am trying to photograph what’s left. I have always been drawn to what is ending, what will soon no longer exist.”
These landscapes lead Koudelka to his most recent project, photographing the walls between Israel and Palestine. It’s here that his work has come full circle, photographing something foreign yet familiar to him. The wall is both a barrier between the Israelis and Palestinians and between humanity and nature.
“One day, while we were walking along the Wall I saw a graffiti that said: ‘One Wall, two prisons’. That sums up how I was feeling. You know, I grew up in Czechoslovakia, behind a wall. I always wanted to get to the other side.”
“I know what a wall is about.”
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