What drew me into Josef Koudelka’s world was the absence of fear in his life. Last year, on a cold overcast February morning I stood in one of the exhibition rooms at the Centre Pompidou, trying to avoid the crowds, and I was struck with awe when I learned that for 16 years Koudelka lived without a fixed address. “Don’t worry about knowing where you’re going to sleep; up till now you have always slept somewhere, and you will sleep again tonight,” he wrote in his notebooks.
He slept in the attics of friends, on a rug in the living room of somewhat perplexed acquaintances, also in the streets, in the suburbs, not far from the exiles of society. In a rucksack he carried his camera, films on which he would capture the landscape of his solitude.
For days the images haunted me, Koudelka lying on the side, his loyal sleeping bag worn out by the years against the Greek sky, the soft arm of twilight draped over him. He took pictures of himself, but also of the people he encountered. The immense generosity that was granted to him. But what was he really looking for in those 16 years? Something inescapable? “Everybody today can press a button, but the person who calls themselves a photographer must have something to say,” he commented on the opening day of his exhibition Exiles.
In Invasion Prague ’68, the current exhibition at Botanique, visitors can examine the photographs that captured the height of the Prague Spring movement, in August of 1968, when forces of the USSR, Poland, GDR, Bulgaria and Hungary, marched on to the capital of Czechoslovakia. A collaboration of the Embassy of the Czech Republic to the Kingdom of Belgium, the Permanent Representation of the Czech Republic to the EU, the Czech Centre, Magum Photos, and Aperture, the black and white prints on display show the events as they unfolded from Tuesday August 20th until Tuesday August 27th, 1968. Koudelka was 30 years old when he witnessed the invasion.
In his series of photographs, Koudelka captured the initial stages of the invasion, moments when the Czechoslovakian people tried to establish a dialogue, to reason with the soldiers.
In the pictures many of the soldiers seem to be very young, some of them reluctant to act. One can see it in their faces, filled with confusion by the turmoil their presence had triggered.
In the back of the exhibition hall one can see footage from those days, how the tensions escalated. Tanks on fire, cars crushed, turrets scanning from left to right, flags fluttering in the air. The pride on the faces of Czechoslovakian people.
Koudelka studied engineering at the Technical University in Prague, received his degree in 1961, and worked in the aeronautical field for many years before finally deciding to focus full time on his passion in 1967. The photographs he took on those grim August days, he had to smuggle to the UK under a pseudonym: Prague Photographer, or P.P. For several years he feared retaliation against his family, and it was only in 1986, after the death of his father, that he agreed to have the photographs being credited to him.
The exhibition will run until Sunday August 12th, 2018. On the last day, a guide from Botanique will answer questions and lead visitors into the exhibition.