Art Through Time: A Global View
Conflict and Resistance Art: CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact Troops invade Prague. In front of the Radio Headquarters.
In 1955, several Communist states in Central and Eastern Europe joined the Soviet Union in signing the Warsaw Pact, an agreement that bound participants to mutual defense in the case of military aggression on the part of non-member nations.
In 1968, however, Warsaw Pact members turned their forces on one of their own founding countries. In January of that year, under the reformist leadership of Alexander Dubček, Czechoslovakians began to experience a period of looser government control and increased freedom. To other participants in the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union in particular, this so-called “Prague Spring” set a dangerous precedent. In an effort to quash the problem, on the night of August 20 through 21, Warsaw Pact troops staged an invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Josef Koudelka, an aeronautical engineer who had recently taken up photography full-time, caught the invasion of Prague in a series of powerful images, including the one seen here. This photograph of an arm, with fist clenched and watch face up and center, is at once mundane and momentous; the simple act of marking the time serves to bear witness to the violent events of that summer. Koudelka aims the camera downward to fill the frame with the empty street, cutting off the open sky in the process. This compositional device, along with the wide, deserted boulevard leading to a square in the distance, effectively conveys a sense of tragedy, loss, and repression.
For a week in August 1968, Koudelka’s proximity to events put him on the front line. His photographs were both photojournalistic documentation of a tumultuous conflict and emotionally charged testimony to the resistance put up by Prague’s overmatched citizens. Smuggled out of the country and published anonymously (so as not to put the artist at risk of reprisal by Soviet authorities), the images themselves might be seen as Koudelka’s own contribution to that collective act of resistance.
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.”
“Invasion—Prague 1968, Joseph Koudelka.” Produced by MagnumInMotion. Magnum Photos Web site. http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essay/invasion.
Koudelka, Josef, and Bernard Cuau. Josef Koudelka (Photofile). London: Thames & Hudson, 2007.
Koudelka, Josef, Jirí Hoppe, Jirí Suk, and Jaroslav Cuhra. Invasion Prague 68.New York: Aperture Foundation, 2008.
Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. Third Edition. New York and London: Abbeville Press, 1997.