Documentary photography and photo-journalism was restricted in the former Czechoslovakia from the late 1940s until the late 1980s – due to the political situation, isolation from news and information, and violently suppressed contact with the free world. The pre-war avant-garde movement continued to influence domestic photography well into the 1960s – both in terms of surrealism and the civilian poetics of the 1940s. Documentary photography (in addition to official propaganda footage of course) was still dominated by classically composed and easily interpretable moments inspired by everyday poetry. During normalization, socially critical documentary photography was very tentatively pursued – so the emerging new generation of independent photographers from the 1970s and 1980s instead found inspiration from the humanist photojournalism of the Magnum Photos international agency. Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), Werner Bischof (1916-54) and David Seymour (1911-56) became synonymous with photo-documentary for many home-grown photographers. They acknowledged not only such figures’ readiness and determination to take a shot, but primarily their social empathy and analytical approach to multiple photographic cycles.

Despite the unfavourable political situation, many respected figures evaded the communist monochrome and produced numerous memorable photos and footage, which often had to be published outside official magazines and newspapers. Such photographers entered the scene in the late 1960s such as Josef Koudelka (*1938), Markéta Luskačová (*1944), Ivo Gil (*1941) and Pavel Štecha (1944-2004) – who could primarily link photojournalism with a critical documentary perspective. For example, Josef Koudelka captured the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and smuggled the film out of the country – these photographs were published (anonymously) by Magnum Photos on the first anniversary of the invasion in many international journals. Koudelka didn’t admit being the photographer in question until 1984 – after the death of his father and when his family no longer faced persecution. Marketa Luskačová focused on documenting unauthorized religious pilgrimages during communism. Following her emigration in 1975, she photographed colourful street markets in London and the fate of minorities in the UK. Pavel Štecha produced the social-critical “Cottage Owners” cycle (1970-72) in which he documented the atypical leisure activities of communist Czechoslovakia – a theme he returned to after twenty years to photograph the same places and capture changes in the new, democratic society.

Similarly, the analytical view – supplemented by personal and emotional contributions – was also documented by his generational colleagues Dana Kyndrová (*1955), Jaroslav Kučera (*1946) and Karel Cudlín (*1960). In the early 1990s, Kyndrová created her most famous project: a photo-documentary on Soviet troops leaving Czechoslovakia. She also photographed immigrants, women and their destinies, and the situation in remote Sub-Carpathian Russia. She has participated in international projects comparing life on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. Photography during the communist era was a challenging and risky undertaking. For example, Jaroslav Kučera was arrested in 1969 while photographing the first anniversary of the Soviet Army’s occupation of Czechoslovakia – he was brutally beaten, remanded at Pankrác Prison (Prague) for weeks, and then tried as a counter-revolutionary.

These photographers set about documenting daily life in totalitarian Czechoslovakia – and their photos continue to make a key contribution to understanding the country’s complex past. In many ways, they illustrate the image of Czech society in the recent past and bring a comprehensible view of destiny in a controlled society – which is often tragicomic yet nonetheless human.