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12 / Conflict and Resistance

CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact Troops invade Prague. In front of the Radio Headquarters.
CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact Troops invade Prague. In front of the Radio Headquarters.
Artist / Origin Josef Koudelka (Czech/French, b. 1938)
Region: Europe
Date August 1968
Material Archival print
Dimensions H: 35 ¾ in. (90.8 cm.), W: 25 ¼ in. (64.13 cm.)
Credit © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

expert perspective

Melissa HarrisEditor-in-Chief, Aperture magazine

CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact Troops invade Prague. In front of the Radio Headquarters.

» Josef Koudelka (Czech/French, b. 1938)

expert perspective

Melissa Harris Melissa Harris Editor-in-Chief, Aperture magazine

You have Koudelka, a thirty-year-old photographer at the time, who had never done any kind of photojournalism or documented any kind of news event. I think his girlfriend called him and said, ‘You know, they say the Soviets are going to invade.’ He was there as a Czechoslovakian. He was photographing, but where he is most impassioned is about what was going on with Czechoslovakia and this incredible moment of resistance and courage. Everybody was Czech and they were in it together and they were resisting.

On the one hand, you are talking about the evidentiary value of photography, so that whole concept of bearing witness. The photographer is there, it’s happening in, you know, real time and space, and then it becomes evidence in some way. But still the best of those photographs have a metaphorical value as well. That’s why they stay with you. We see evidence all the time, but those images that stay with you are the ones that sort of become transcendent.

Joseph’s signature image from this body of work to many people would be this image of the watch, which operates on a very metaphorical level, and, in fact, doesn’t show conflict outside of the context. And when you talk to Josef about this work and that we, you know, now people tell him that he was so courageous, and he doesn’t see it that way. He says, ‘Well, maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t.’ But I don’t think he could have done anything else. I think it was like a kind of almost animal instinct. There was absolutely no way he couldn’t have photographed this and he did. And he was also lucky in some respects in that he never had his film confiscated.” 

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