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12 / Conflict and Resistance

CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact Troops invade Prague. In front of the Radio Headquarters.
CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact Troops invade Prague. In front of the Radio Headquarters.
Artist / Origin Josef Koudelka (Czech/French, b. 1938)
Region: Europe
Date August 1968
Material Archival print
Dimensions H: 35 ¾ in. (90.8 cm.), W: 25 ¼ in. (64.13 cm.)
Credit © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

expert perspective

Melissa HarrisEditor-in-Chief, Aperture magazine

Additional Resources

“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.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact Troops invade Prague. In front of the Radio Headquarters.

» Josef Koudelka (Czech/French, b. 1938)

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.

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