Art & Culture
Behind the Lens: Jiří Jírů and Jindřich Štreit
In the 70’s there was a popular song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” but here in Prague the Velvet Revolution was not only televised but also captured on camera. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovakia, we’re taking a look behind the lens of two Czech photographers who documented life under the communist regime. Jiří Jírů spent much of his career in Brussels after the Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia, but the revolutions brought him home 25 years later. After spending a couple years documenting the Glasnost era in Russia and revolutions in Poland and Romania, Jírů finally returned to Prague in 1989 to capture what is now known as the Velvet Revolution. Jindřich Štreit, on the other hand, focused on photographing everyday village life under communist regimes in Czechoslovakia and neighboring countries. He also photographed general elections in Prague, photos which lead to his arrest and sentence to work on a state farm for defamation of the government. He is widely known as one of the leading figures of Czech documentary photography. Both photographers captured the spirit of the Czechs and Slovaks as they simultaneously lived their everyday lives while also fighting for their freedoms.
Photographer to President Havel: Jiří Jírů
Introduced to photography by his uncle at a young age, Jiří Jírů was already an up-and-coming photographer with Prague newspapers when he went on a short trip to Brussels in 1968 – A trip that ended up lasting twenty-five years.
Jírů’s travel happened to coincide with the unexpected Soviet invasion that ended the Prague Spring, prompting his mom to advise him to stay put in Brussels until the Russians cleared out. Quickly learning that language barriers would prevent him from getting work right away, Jírů enrolled in film school for a couple years before dropping out to take an assistant job developing photos for other photographers due to lack of money. Growing tired of this, Jírů went directly to the flat of the European Commission TIME correspondent, who miraculously connected Jírů with freelance work.
Not only allowing Jírů to finally become financially stable, this job gave him opportunities to make countless more connections, nudging his career back into place. He went on to publish photographs in Newsweek, Business Week, National Geographic, The New York Times, Fortune, People Magazine and Paris Match, among other world-renowned publications. Through these connections Jírů found himself visiting the White House, an experience that would make a lasting impression on him, even encouraging him to pursue working for Czech President Václav Havel some twenty years later.
Before becoming Havel’s photographer, People Magazine sent Jírů to the then Soviet Union to document Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership and the era of “Glasnost,” or openness and transparency that Gorbachev promoted within the USSR and throughout relations with the western world. For six weeks Jírů traveled the country photographing the people of Russia as their country went through the immensely impactful movement of Perestroika, involving the restructuring of their entire government. This era is widely accepted to be a significant precursor to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and inspiration for the Eastern European revolutions of 1989. For Jírů, this Russian expedition turned out to be one of the most interesting assignments of his career as he got to dive into the minds of an entirely different culture during one of the most dynamic periods in their culture.
A year after Russia and other assignments documenting the beginning of revolutions in Poland and Romania, TIME and The New York Times sent Jírů to shoot what is now known as the Velvet Revolution. “I hesitated a bit,” says Jírů. “There was a danger I could get arrested upon arrival at the airport because of emigrating from Czechoslovakia years before. But I already had Belgian citizenship at the time, so I decided to agree and took the offer.” A demonstration was planned in Prague for the 20th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. “Not many people believed it would happen,” remembers Jírů. “But it did in the end.” From his accommodations in the Hotel Jalta, where the government famously tapped the rooms in order to spy on the foreign guests, Jírů watched as small groups gradually turned into a large group of hundreds of people “peacefully walking towards Old Town Square.” Following along with the protesters, Jírů recalls how “later they tried to continue to the Prague Castle, but by the evening the police intervened and arrested hundreds of people.”
“It wasn’t easy to carry the shot material through the borders,” says Jírů. “In the end we did manage to send the photos with the help of the Belgian and American embassies, via Vienna and on through to New York.” Jírů returned to Prague a year later, this time with approval from the Communist party, to document the unexpected and peaceful transition of the Czechoslovakian government from Communism to a parliamentary republic.
A few years later Jírů randomly met President Havel at the funeral of the Belgian King Baudouin. Jírů, in his typical go-getter fashion, wrote to the castle and asked if they would hire him as Havel’s photographer. Although they were unable to pay Jírů more than a measly 350 CZK a month, Jírů, inspired by his visit to the White House all those years before, accepted the position anyways responding that “such work is not done just for money.” However, leaving Brussels was not all glamour.
“I had quite a few disappointments,” says Jírů. “But luckily all the negatives from this period have been archived in the Prague Castle, which makes me very happy and proud.”
Most of Jírů’s photos are shot in black and white. In Czech culture “black and white photographs are still very popular,” says Jírů. “It reminds people of the old masters. Even when the photographer takes a color photograph, he will alter it in photoshop to black and white and immediately get a better response.” This aspect of Czech photography is the only major difference Jírů found between styles here and the style of photography in Brussels and the U.S. “Photography is defined more by the photograph’s mindset,” says Jírů. “This is influenced by the society where the photographer lives or works.”
Some of the most memorable moments of his time with President Havel include taking photos of Olga Havlová’s funeral, the first wife of President Havel, and later Havel’s wedding with Czech actress Dagmar Veškrnová. On top of royalty and presidents, and drastically changing governments, Jírů also took photos of many celebrities and cultural icons. While in Russia, he photographed journalist Susan Reed leaving flowers at her grandfather’s grave who was “the only American who was honored to be buried in the cemetery at the Kremlin.” Her grandfather, John Reed, wrote the novel Ten Days That Shook the World and was a close friend of Lenin. Jírů’s collection includes actors Meryl Streep and Arnold Schwarzenegger, singers Michael Jackson, Mireille Mathieu, and Sinéad O’Connor, the bands The Bee Gees and The Rolling Stones, Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, and many more.
Documentary Photographer: Jindřich Štreit
Jindřich Štreit never meant to ridicule the Czechoslovakian President with his photos, but he was arrested all the same. While documenting the course of the general elections in 1981, Štreit edited photos, adding pictures of Gustav Husák, the President at the time, in unexpected and absurd places. Viewers found the photos comical, the communist party found them treasonous.
“I didn’t regret it. But I never thought that in a way, as it was interpreted,” says Štreit. “I didn’t mean to satirize. It was not something to laugh about, but to cry..”
Štreit is considered one of the most important figures in Czech documentary photography. From a small village in eastern Czechoslovakia, he mainly photographs what he knows – normal everyday life in rural communities. From the seemingly mundane and simple, to aspects of life that are normal but possibly shouldn’t be, Štreit set out to capture what life was really like for villagers under the communist regime. For Štreit, to be a documentary photographer he could not be cold and impersonal, but must truly understand the subjects he chose to shoot. He looks through his lens with empathy, warmth, and understanding to capture not just the reality of it all, but also the underlying humanity, getting to know the subjects of his photos.
“Documentary photography is about people and this is what I truly like,” says Štreit. “The communication with others, this is for me, personally, a big joy.”
He was never one to disguise the rough and dirty, instead he confronted people with unabashedly true photos that found the beauty in the midst of gritty reality. His photos range from gas-mask wearing people walking through beautiful country sides to a couple having a disagreement about which way to carry a log, and other candid village interactions between friends, families, and neighbors. He has also varied from village life by documenting drug addiction, disabled life, prison life, and cultures of other countries during his extensive travels. He is currently focusing on the relationship of chaplains and prisoners, and the work of home hospice nurses. Throughout all his various topics, Štreit attempts to highlight the universal social relations that connect all of humanity together.
Naturally, Štreit’s dedication to the realistic no matter what it displayed or brought to light did not go over well with the communist party. The propaganda-focused nature of the government meant that only the best aspects of the country could be highlighted in artistic exhibitions, so when Štreit edited his photos to convey the reality of the elections he was arrested for defamation and forced to work on a state farm. Upon release Štreit was instructed not to take any more photographs, but he ignored their warning and went right back to photographing the world around him. While he enjoyed documenting life under the communist regime, his favorite era is directly after the Velvet Revolution.
“Every period has something special and unique,” says Štreit. “But I have to say that the period after 1989 was a time of hope and freedom.”
Štreit not only connects with people through his photographs, but he has also been an avid teacher, professor, and general enthusiast for the arts for most of his life. He has worked as the headmaster and librarian at elementary schools, coordinated cultural activities in villages and through museums, and been a professor of visual media and photography at universities. Currently he is still teaching in the Institute of Creative Photography at the Arts and Sciences Faculty of the Silesian University in eastern Czech Republic. He also remains very active in the cultural scene in Sovinec in North Moravia, an art hub that he is largely credited with singlehandedly creating. He often coordinates exhibitions and other cultural events at the castle there, bringing artistic life to the area and encouraging younger generations in their creative endeavors.