Josef Koudelka told Sean O’Hagan of the Guardian that it was a year after the Soviet invasion of Prague when he was in London traveling with a theater group, that he first saw his images published. He had come out of the hotel and some members of the group were looking at his photos in The Sunday Times, credited to the initials P.P. (Prague Photographer), a pseudonym he used out of fear of reprisal.
They showed me the magazine where it said that these pictures had been taken by an unknown photographer from Prague and smuggled out of the country. I could not tell anyone that they were my photographs. It was a very strange feeling. From that moment, I was afraid to go back to Czechoslovakia because I knew that if they wanted to find out who the unknown photographer was, they could do it.
Thus began one of the most important and prolific photographic careers in the last fifty years and a period of freedom and wandering for Koudelka who said that “for 17 years I never paid any rent.”
Koudelka turned to photography in 1967, abandoning a career in aeronautical engineering. He started shooting gypsies and theater groups, until the night of August 21st a year later when the Soviets invaded Prague. He had never documented a major event before. He took to the streets to capture this singular and historic moment. In that seven day period, Koudelka took over 5,000 photographs on the streets of Prague, getting shot at once and being pursued through crowds by soldiers. He was 30 years old.
The photos anonymously reached Magnum Photos in New York and later earned him the Robert Capa award.
The mother of my son, an Italian lady, she once told me, ‘Josef, you go though life and get all this positive energy, and all the sadness, you just throw it behind you and it drops into the bag you carry on your back. Then, when you photograph, it all comes out.’
You know, people say, ‘Oh, Josef, he is the eternal outsider,’ but on the contrary I try always to be an insider, both as a photographer and as a man. I am part of everything that is around me.