Doubtful Nationalities: A Josef Koudelka Retrospective

So, what nationality are you?” In my Omaha grade school in the mid-1970s, we’d ask each other this question with deep concern. I had friends who claimed Irish with pride (especially around St Patrick’s Day, or when the Boston Celtics were in the playoffs—thanks to a guy named Havlicek, but never mind). German was a popular response as well, though I now wonder if it would have been a few decades earlier. Declaring one’s nationality —one’s ethnic heritage — was a challenge that built communities by excluding others.

This question perplexed my nine-year-old self. My mother, a bit impatient with this fascination with the Old World, responded, “You’re American.” But that was boring. Grandpa McLean was Irish, we were told, but he died when my father was still a child (but wait, isn’t McLean Scottish? Argh). His wife, my Grandma McLean, was Bohemian. This would become very cool when I bought my first (and last) beret sometime in the eighties. But it didn’t count for much among my grade-school peers. That left my mother’s side, which was Polish — a risky, joke-inspiring nationality at the time. Thanks to All Star Wrestling, I had one celebrity on my side: the Polish Hammer, Ivan Putski (I’m serious — I can’t tell you how much it meant to have a good guy who was Polish in my single-digit cultural environment). But how could I be Polish-American with a name like McLean?

National identity, like class or religious identity, is a complex and powerful emotional force, whether in the schoolyard, the neighbourhood, or the field of battle. I know I’m fortunate to have lived in communities where my ethnic background hasn’t hindered my life or career. And I know that, for most people, this just isn’t the case.

A major exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, “Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful” reminds us of the dangers and responsibilities that come with accepting or denying ethnic or ideological identities. The exhibition, already seen in Chicago and soon on its way to Madrid, is a retrospective of one of the most important living photographers. Josef Koudelka was born in Czechoslovakia in 1938, just a few months before the Nazis invaded. Though he trained and worked as an aeronautical engineer, Koudelka retained an interest in the arts and regularly photographed for leading theatre companies in Prague.


Josef Koudelka, Bohemia (negative 1966; print 1967) gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, gift of the artist, 2013.1256.
© Josef Koudelika/Magnum Photos.

In the late 1960s he turned his attention to Roma communities in Central Europe. His work (but not his name) gained international notice after the Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia in August, 1968. His images of Prague under siege and its brave citizens (faces scratched out to protect their identity) appeared in magazines and newspapers all over the world, though he was identified only as “P.P.” (Prague Photographer). In 1970 Koudelka applied for political asylum in the United Kingdom. Sometime after arrival he lost his passport and, despite his repeated assurances about his background, he was given identity papers in the U.K. that declared him “Nationality: Doubtful.” A current UK government document defines the status thus: “In these cases the Home Office does not accept the applicant’s claimed nationality, but cannot be satisfied on the basis of all the available documentary and oral evidence that the applicant is a national of another country and/or the Home Office has no evidence that they are removable to another country/territory.”

Fortunately this Kafkaesque status did not stop this latter-day Josef K from photographing exiles and outsiders all over Europe.  Still, the phrase takes on great resonances in relation to Koudelka: as the citizen of a country invaded twice during his lifetime, and more recently divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia; and as a photographer whose work records communities who dispute or challenge easy national categories. From his still remarkable images of Roma, to his recent images of widespread environmental degradation (borderlands coal mines) and post-Soviet ruins (a monumental wreck of Lenin floating down the Danube), Koudelka’s art — and life — reflect the movement of peoples and ideas across Europe and beyond over the last sixty years.

One of many images that stood out to me comes from Koudelka’s first and most famous exhibition of photographs of Roma. This exhibition, which eventually led to his important 1975 volume Gypsies, took place in the foyer of a Prague theatre in 1967, and the current retrospective includes 22 original prints. They have been float mounted in black frames with white background, giving the images a kind of drama and respect that contrasts with the rather rough appearance of the historical prints and promotes the dignity of the images themselves.

Roma have a complex and still little-understood history. Originally from India (not Egypt), Roma migrated to Europe more than a thousand years ago. Long an object of fascination for artists and writers, who were entranced by their music and perceived lifestyle, they were more often persecuted, enslaved, or expelled. In the three decades leading up to Koudelka’s exhibition, Roma had been the victims of Nazi genocide and brutal assimilation policies in Czechoslovakia. This horrific recent history makes Koudelka’s early images all the more remarkable. This was no record of a “dying race” or “the last of the gypsies;” these images capture a thriving, everyday life: celebrations, funerals, children playing, a strikingly handsome young couple. There is a collaborative quality to the images that suggest the subjects of the photographs allowed themselves to be photographed in unguarded moments, and they look back with confidence and pride.

Josef Koudelka, Slovakia (negative 1963; print 1967) gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, Amanda Taub Veazie Endowment and Photography Gala Fund, 2013.1223. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos.

Josef Koudelka, Slovakia (negative 1963; print 1967) gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, Amanda Taub Veazie Endowment and Photography Gala Fund, 2013.1223.
© Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos.

One image, like most of the others simply titled “Slovakia” seems to capture a different kind of moment, but a moment that is far more common than we’d like to think: a Roma man in handcuffs in deserted space, isolated from the community. In the context of the other images of everyday events, we are forced to see this man’s plight as another common occurrence in this community’s existence.

Initially all our attention focuses on the young man. He stands alone, looks bewildered and afraid, arms pulled awkwardly forward by the pressure of the cuffs around his wrists. Off balance, he teeters in a wasteland of rubble and dirt where deep tyre tracks cut across the land. In fact he seems to be dangerously in the middle of the road — the cut of the tyres tracks right at his head. He seems oblivious to our presence — the photographer’s presence, that is.

But those tracks in the road lead us to other levels of meaning. They eventually lead to the houses beyond, but they seem to terminate in a string of some fifty people standing in the distance. Police guard either side of the picture, one holding back a German Shepherd. On the very edge, an officer is seemingly taking a picture of the handcuffed man (and presumably the photographer who is recording this event). In the lower left-hand corner there appears the edge of another figure, no doubt another police officer. Another photographer would have found a way to edit this out, but I think it’s crucial to the image. This man is isolated and alone, but that edge of clothing reminds us that authority is close by.

Who are the people in the distance, the long line between the police officers? The image is grainy, and one hesitates to make assumptions based on vague appearance; after all, the rest of the pictures seem to be arguing that Roma are no different from us, that they’re aware of the present in their ideas and their dress. Some of them could be Roma. If so, it’s easy to understand why no one comes to this man’s assistance — doing so would no doubt only cause more arrests or worse.

Yet I would guess that most or all of the onlookers are members of the Czechoslovakian town or village near the Roma community. They stand as a sort of wall guarding the wood and brick houses behind them (this interest in barriers continues in Koudelka’s recent work focused in the West Bank barrier that separates Israelis and Palestinians). Their presence allows the image to become a sort of unintended national portrait: the family of Central Europe and their unwanted son.

Koudelka’s images of Roma are simply titled after the place where they were taken. Naming a photo after its location suggests that the image captures something essential about place, but in this case it also becomes an indictment of that place.[1]

I can’t speak to the precise historical context of this riveting and disturbing image — surely those who saw the 1967 exhibition in Prague saw things that 21st-century American or Spanish audiences will miss or won’t comprehend. But I found the image powerful because it speaks to the bigotry and nationalism of our own era, an era of #blacklivesmatter and island camps to keep asylum seekers at bay. I was struck by how often museum goers gravitated towards the image; I think they too saw a meaning there that goes beyond the moment captured on film, and my reading of it reflects the image’s immediacy and daring and tragedy.

Nevertheless, this man isn’t a symbol. He is a man, someone’s son, perhaps someone’s brother; we should wonder what happened after the photograph was taken, and the man was led away to a place where no one will question his nationality.


[1] Koudelka admirers may know that, elsewhere, this image is titled A young Gypsy suspected of being guilty takes part in a murder reconstruction, Jarabina, Czechoslovakia, 1963. In the current Getty exhibition, however, the image is simply titled Slovakia, and no further description accompanies the image. Since Koudelka was closely involved in the current retrospective, I assume he wants us to see the image without such background information, and I’ve tried to consider the photograph in this spirit. Still, the fact that the community has come out to witness the reconstruction of a crime suggests further levels of meaning in this remarkable image.

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