Josef Koudelka : A Master “Photo-Poet” of Conflict, Displacement and Alienation

Josef Koudelka: the man who risked his life to photograph and documented his own time

Josef Koudelka, a Czech–French photographer who in 1968 was living in Prague, Czechoslovakia and was at the time, a 30-year-old acclaimed theatre photographer who had never made pictures of a news event. That all changed on the night of August 21, when in the height of the Cold War, U.S.S.R’s Warsaw Pact tanks invaded the city of Prague, ending the short-lived political and social liberalization in Czechoslovakia that came to be known as the “Prague Spring.” In the midst of the turmoil of the Soviet-led invasion, Koudelka took a series of photographs which were miraculously smuggled out of the country. A year after they reached New York, Magnum Photos distributed the images credited to "an unknown Czech photographer" to avoid reprisals. This body of work came to be known as the “Prague Invasion” series (first published in 1969) and was much lauded in photojournalist circles leading this series to be recognized as one of the seminal works of Koudelka’s long and successful career. The intensity and significance of the images earned the still-anonymous photographer the Robert Capa Award. Sixteen years would pass before Koudelka could safely acknowledge authorship. These photographs, of crowds staring down the barrels of tank guns, defiant youths waving resistance flags in smoldering streets and anti-Soviet graffiti that sprang up every day and was whitewashed every night, came to define one of the pivotal moments of 20th-century history.

Koudelka left his Czech homeland in exile in 1970 and spent the next two decades travelling between England, France, Ireland, Italy and Spain. With Magnum to recommend him to the British authorities, Koudelka applied for a three-month working visa and fled to England in 1970, where he applied for political asylum and stayed for more than a decade. In 1971 he joined Magnum Photos. He continued to wander around Europe with his camera and little else. “For 20 years I couldn’t go back. For 16 years I didn’t have a passport and for 16 years I didn’t hear from anybody, I was travelling all the time,” he said. Even before he left Czechoslovakia, Koudelka was attracted to the nomadic lifestyles of gypsies, whom he photographed between 1962 and 1971 in Czechoslovakia, rural Romania, Hungary, France and Spain. Every summer he would set off with his rucksack, often sleeping in the open air as he travelled. Koudelka would publish these set of photographs as one of his major projects titled “Gypsies” in 1975. Throughout his career, Koudelka has been praised for his ability to capture the presence of the human spirit amidst dark landscapes. Desolation, waste, departure, despair and alienation are common themes in his work.

His characters sometimes seem to come out of fairytales. Still, what can be prominently seen within his work is hope in the endurance of human endeavor, in spite of its fragility.  Throughout his work, Koudelka appears not as a neutral observer but rather as a photographer who is sharing the experience of his subjects whether it be in rage, anguish, outrage, anticipation, despair, disbelief, loneliness or alienation. This is ultimately why Koudelka can be considered a great “photo-poet” of his time.

Photos of series "Gypsies"

Prague Invasion 1968 photos


Complied by:

Mustafa Habib Chowdhury

Freelance Travel Photographer by passion

and a Professor of Engineering by profession



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