Interviews with Josef Koudelka are rare, but he recently granted one to Christian Caujolle for Le Monde. We would like to thank Josef Koudelka,Christian Caujolle and Le Monde for agreeing to let us reprint it here.Josef Koudelka preferred that we use an earlier version of the interview than the one which appeared in Le Monde.
Now 77, Josef Koudelka is as difficult to reach as ever. He has neither a mobile phone nor an email address. But since he’s always on the move—last month alone he was in Poland, Paris, Rome and Paris again before heading to the South of France—he makes use of other people’s email accounts and can be reached for a few hours here and there. And he always calls back. We set a time to meet and he arrived on time, exactly. His work displays an almost obsessive precision, as does his life.
His hair, disheveled as ever, has turned white. His eyes sparkle behind little, round glasses, and his voice, halting but loud, switches from French to English as he searches for words, holding strong positions, followed by a funny story.
Today he’s publishing the third version of Exiles, his most distinctive work, and perhaps his most important. The new version, in landscape format, is divided into seven sequences—the first only had five—which aren’t really chapters and, unlike other books, cannot be summarized thematically. Exiles is a far cry from his seminal 1975 work, Gypsies, a new and expanded version of which was published by Robert Delpire in 2011.
“At first, with the gypsies, I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing,” says Koudelka. “I was meeting people, taking their portraits, getting them to accept me, sharing in their lives. Then I organized my vision of the gypsies, taking into account the facts and issues, trying to talk about the way they live, leaving nothing out. The work I did afterwards, in exile, as Robert Delpire was quick to grasp, had to be organized differently. It wasn’t about different ‘subjects,’ but rather about what it means to be a photographer. Gypsies is a different book, it’s very structured, which isn’t the case with Exiles, or at least not in the same way. Being a photographer is a long, slow process. You don’t just take pictures, you have to organize and think about them. Exils is built around moments, one photograph leads to another, intuitively, without there being a ‘story’ or narrative.”
In fact, everything goes back to his beginnings with the gypsies, that exploration of and immersion in a world that spoke to young Koudelka’s desire for freedom. Anna Farova, the great historian of photography, supported Koudelka throughout the process. Farova put him in touch with Magnum ( the photo agency) , and it was she who, in 1958, published in Prague the first pocket-format monograph of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
In 1968, when Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia, Koudelka took pictures—not as a journalist, but as an observer of people: young Russian soldiers surprised not to be welcomed with open arms, and young Czechs who did not understand that their hopes of freedom were being crushed. Magnum on the first anniversary of the invasion helped to have the pictures published signed “Prague photographer . ” The photographs were collected in the book Invasion, central to his work, which was painstaking to put together. “In a book, you have something to say and a way to say it, with content and a visual story. The way they come together is complex and often intuitive. For me, a book is like a puzzle. The photographs are like words: you can use them for insults or poetry, depending on how you put them together.”
After obtaining a visa to continue his work with the gypsies, Koudelka set out on his first tour of Europe. “I left Czechoslovakia in May 1970,” he recalls. “I wanted to see everywhere gypsies gathered. I started in the south of France with the gypsy pilgrimages at Saintes Maries de la Mer. Afterwards I went to the Epsom Derby near London, then the Appleby Horse Fair on the Scottish border, then to Ireland. When I passed back through Paris, I dropped by the Magnum offices. They told me that even though my photographs of the invasion had been published anonymously, it would be easy for the Czech police to figure out who was the photographer, so they advised me not to return to Prague.” It was the beginning of a life in exile.
“I had to play around with the law to stay as long as possible, extending visas and residence permits. I remember very clearly one afternoon in Hyde Park, London, I had to decide whether to stay or leave, and in the end I stayed. I had wanted to leave but I didn’t because I was afraid that the police would figure out that I was the ‘Prague photographer’ who had photographed the Russian invasion. I didn’t want to go to prison. That was in 1971. My exile only ended when I was able to return to Prague in 1990.”
This period coincided with the discovery of a profound change. “When I was photographing gypsies in Czechoslovakia, when I was living with them, sleeping outside, they would leave someone with me to make sure nothing happened to me. Afterwards, in exile, they felt that I was in a more difficult situation than they were. They told me, ‘It must be difficult for you to travel the world alone.’ And I remember one little English gypsy asking me, ‘When was the last time you saw your family?’ It was the way I had chosen to live my life, and they couldn’t understand it.”
It was a radical choice that has changed little today. “For sixteen years I worked for no one. I never took a commission, never took pictures for money. I scraped by, trying not to have any possessions. I didn’t pay rent for 16 years. I didn’t want to have a home. I didn’t need much, just a sleeping bag, a pair of shoes, two pairs of socks, and one pair of pants per year. A jacket and two shirts would last me three years. I was able to live for several years off the money I earned from the Magnum sale of the photos of the invasion. Then there was the sale of the archive photos. And I was able to remain independent through various grants and prizes. The first major grant I received was from the Arts Council in the UK in 1976. I lived off that for three years.” To put it another way: “In the West I tried not to conform. I wanted to stay different, and stay angry, for as long possible.”
Koudelka shared this radical approach to freedom with Henri Cartier-Bresson, another important figure in his career. “When I arrived in Paris, I showed my work to Cartier-Bresson. It was the gypsy photos and I was worried. I knew that he didn’t care for wide-angle photographs, so I was surprised when he asked me for two of them, which he then hung up in his home. They were the only photographs on his wall. Later I showed him what I was doing and he liked it. He told me he had been afraid that I’d only ever be able to take pictures of gypsies. He really liked the new pictures and found them interesting.
They remained very close until Cartier-Bresson’s death. Their relationship, says Koudelka, “was different from his relationship with other Magnum photographers, perhaps because many of them had become photographers after seeing his work. Back then I was perhaps the only Magnum photographer to take a critical view of his work. He wanted to know what I thought. I learned a lot from him, but not so much about photography. He told me not to become a photojournalist.”
Cartier-Bresson introduced Koudelka to the publisher Robert Delpire, who told Koudelka: “You have the eyes of a painter, but be careful—that’s something you can lose.” Delpire became his publisher, but their relationship wasn’t always easygoing. “It took years to arrive at a final version. Delpire has a very clear idea of what he does, and so do I sometimes. I like to work with the best people in their fields, but we don’t always agree. They help me reflect on whether or not my ideas are good, and I learn a lot from them.”
However, Koudelka says he learned, “more about photography from Delpire than from anybody else. And he knows my photographs better than anyone else. We worked together on most of my books. Exiles is an example of a true collaboration between a photographer and a publisher. Delpire understood who I am as a photographer and was able to identify with my experience as an exile. We had our share of disagreements, but we share a vision of what makes a ‘good’ photograph.”
The title of the book is Exiles—it was Delpire’s idea and Koudelka agreed to it—but nothing is ever made explicit. “To be in exile is simply to have left one’s country and to be unable to return… Every case of exile is a different experience. I wanted to see the world and take pictures. I’ve been traveling for 45 years. I’ve never stayed anywhere longer than three months. When I couldn’t find anything else to photograph, I had to leave. When I decided not to return home, I knew that I wanted to develop an experience of the world that I could never imagine in Czechoslovakia.”
Koudelka reiterated this idea several ways: “Exile is a gift. It forces you to completely rebuild your life and gives you the opportunity, if you’re lucky enough to be able to return home, to see things with new eyes. I realized that I had never known Prague, my hometown, until I returned. After 16 years without a passport I was glad to obtain a French one in 1987. But I don’t feel French. I don’t feel Czech. I’m the product of all the countries I’ve visited and all the people I’ve known. I’m not from a single place. It’s like Marguerite Yourcenar wrote in Memoirs of Hadrian: ‘Though a foreigner in every land, in no place did I feel myself a stranger.’ But I know where my roots are. Not in the village where I was born by chance, but further south, in southern Moravia, where the music still speaks to me. The music comes out of the earth, and I feel as though I come from the same earth. I lost that music and went looking for it. I found it on the border between Spain and Portugal, in Andalusia, in a place called El Almendro—‘Almond tree’—and I went back every year. I know everybody there. I see myself in El Almendro.”
Were those years the development of a style of photography made manifest in Exiles? “I’ve never been interested in photojournalism that attempts to tell a story through several pictures. I’ve always sought out pictures that tell a story in themselves, letting each viewer see a story that suits them. For me, a good photograph is one that tells a different story to each person who sees it… The most important thing in photography is turning a negative into a positive. That’s the most important lesson to learn from it… A single photograph can tell a lie, but a book cannot. This book reflects my life during this period, my desire to discover the world and, at the same time, discover myself… Seeing the world through a camera gives it shape, and perhaps the world also shapes the photographer.”
Today Koudelka lives in Prague while keeping a base in Paris, but he’s always on the move. “Today I feel more European an do not belong to any nationality. When the English gave me my first residence permit, they put me in the category of “Nationality Doubtful,” for people who cannot provide proof of their birthplace or British nationality. I never considered it to be an insult—on the contrary. There’s only one earth, and we’re all its citizens.”
So Koudelka wandered the world in order to see it, photograph it, doing projects along the Mediterranean and elsewhere. While his latest work, Chaos (Delpire), featuring highly graphic panoramic structures, is devoid of humans, he hasn’t forgotten them, “the people I have something in common with. Today I see fewer and fewer people I want to photograph. The world has changed, and so have I… There are 25 years of photographs to explore again and to edit. About 10,000 films. It’s essential to be sure of what need to be kept, what can be left behind.”
This is reflected in the latest version of Exiles. “Only death is final, but I think this might be the final version of Exiles. In any case, I’m not going to be pushing for a new one.”
Is Exiles a self-portrait of the period between 1970 and 1987? Koudelka says no. “I think the best portrait of a photographer are his photographs.