“Invasion Prague 68: Josef Koudelka”

by Mike Hamilton

Staff Writer

Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography
Closes July 18

When photographer Josef Koudelka took to the streets of Prague in August 1968, he captured a monumental moment as the so-called Prague Spring of Czechoslovakia’s rising democracy was being crushed in an event that would affect the political freedom in the Soviet Union and its satellite states for the next 20 years. Fearing the further erosion of its power as well as greater political plurality and liberal thinking in Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union chose to take the nation by force. In hindsight, invasion seemed inevitable, but at the time it was an unprecedented act of force that rampaged through Prague and left citizens confused and desperate. More than 100 people were killed and at least 400 were seriously injured.

Koudelka was new to professional photography then, and it was his first attempt at documenting hard news; yet during the chaotic and turbulent week-long ordeal, he managed to produce astonishingly composed shots, one after another. He went beyond the call of duty, fearlessly climbing aboard Soviet tanks and pushing his lens upclose to the faces of soldiers and angry, violent protesters.

This exhibition brings together more than 250 of Koudelka’s photographs, presented in various mediums — from 1.5-meter-high prints to images displayed in grids and video presentations. Together, they evoke the scale and intensity of the historic event, while printed statements from the Czechoslovakian government, Moscow authorities, work unions, the press and radio reveal the political complexity and confusion experienced in Prague that week.

The films had to be smuggled out of the country and they eventually reached Magnum Photos in New York, where they were credited to “unknown photographer.” The photos provided the international press with an extraordinary insider glimpse of the tragic event, and a year later they won the prestigious Robert Capa Prize. It was not until 1984, however — when his family were finally all safe from the secret police — that Koudelka could publicly reveal himself as the photographer.

This touring exhibition symbolizes one of few remaining testaments to the staggering resistance of many Czech people against Soviet forces.

Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., admission ¥800, closed Mon. For more information, visit www.syabi.com.