Czech photojournalist Joesph Koudelka was born in Moravia in 1938. Despite his interest in photography throughout his youth, he quit his job as an aeronautical engineer in Prague at the age of 29 when he decided to pursue photography full-time. One year into his practice, after his return from photographing a body of work on gypsies, Koudelka witnessed and documented one of the most historical events that took place in Europe, when the Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw Pact invaded Prague and successfully terminated the reform in Czechoslovakia in August of 1968.
For the next 7 days, Koudelka recorded the devastating series of events that greatly impacted his career. His negatives were smuggled out of Prague and published in The Sunday Times in London and Look Magazine in the United States. In order to protect his identity he used a different alias with the initials PP which stood for ‘Prague Photographer.’
In 1969 Koudelka won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for his work anonymously. Only 16 years later, after his father’s death, he was credited for his work using his real name. In 1970, he fled to England where he requested political asylum and stayed for over 10 years. With the help of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Elliott Erwitt in 1971, he became a member of Magnum Photos, the world’s most prestigious photographic agency.
In 1975 whilst his book Gypsies was published, an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) was dedicated to him, followed by the release of Exiles another book he published in 1988.
In 1986, Koudelka documented the urban and rural landscapes of France, in the DATAR project which he was part of. His photographic techniques changed when he started using a panoramic camera, and in 1990 he returned to Czechoslovakia for the first time to cover one of the most devastated landscapes of Central Europe, the ‘Black Triangle’. As a result of his work dealing with his concern for how contemporary man has influenced the landscape, he released the book Chaos in 1999.
His first retrospective book came out in France and seven other countries in 2006. In 2008, Invasion Prague’ 68 was published in 13 countries. In 2011, a revisited version of the book Gypsies was re-edited from the original 1968 dummy. The same year, the exhibition Invasion Prague’ 68 was presented for the first time in Moscow.
Josef Koudelka received a number of awards, including the Grand Prix National de la Photographie in France (1987), the Henri Cartier-Bresson award (1991) and l’ICP Infinity Award (2004).
In 2018, born out of a shared admiration for one of the most prominent photojournalist of the 20th century, Rasha Salah, the Executive Director of Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture and board member Tarek Nahas, one of Lebanon’s leading photography collectors joined forces to bring into being one of the most monumental photography exhibitions in Lebanon. In association with Magnum Photos, and curator Xavier Barral, both Nahas and Salah visited Koudelka overseas in order to persuade him to exhibit such significant and relevant bodies of work. After several visits, he became excited, and initially changed his mind about the way the work was going to be exhibited. His request was to create a large-scale exhibit in a context of a historical building located in the heart of the city.
The Wall/Beirut is an immersive exhibition that juxtaposes two of the Czech photographer’s oeuvres. The Wall illustrates the inauspicious realism of the Palestinian landscape. Comprised of panoramic landscape photographs, taken between 2008 and 2012, of the apartheid wall separating Israel and Palestine. Koudelka’s Beirut work on the other hand documents the devastated city centre at the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1991.
“Photography is beyond a message or theme. It is universal and also artistic.” Says Nahas.
Koudelka’s content is important, and his unique techniques allow the viewers to engage and understand some of the most intricate situations history has to offer. Without involving himself in his images, Koudelka chooses to take an unbiased approach. He shoots things as they are. He documents facts.
A deeply engaging photo exhibition with a concept that is well thought out and very complex. The Wall/Beirut is Divided into two sections on different floors of Dar El-Nimer’s building, each floor represents one body of work. With the use of different mediums such as projections, and book displays, the viewers will see a common theme, great work and great photography. As they look deeper though they will begin to understand the complexity of Koudelka’s work.
The Wall/Beirut will be on display till December 22nd 2018 at Dar El-Nimer.
An achievement for a young foundation
Succeeding in bringing Koudelka and Magnum is an accomplishment for Dar El-Nimer, a foundation that is “only a year old”, said Nahas. “We are fortunate that he has accepted,” says Executive Director Rasha Salah.
In Lebanon, funding, transporting and insuring such work is costly and brings about many challenges to centers and organizations. Apart from high costs of transport and insurance, there are considerable taxes that amount to 21% of the price of the work. 11% of the cost is payed in taxes (VAT) and 10% is spent on custom duties. “Bringing art work to Lebanon becomes part of the heritage, and if you prevent this through very high taxation it will be detrimental to the future.” Says Nahas.
Dar El-Nimer has built an audience that trusts the organization because they are able to connect with all the work regardless of its context. Board member and photo collector Tarek Nahas explains that it is human nature to think that people are divided into two categories, those who understand art and those who don’t. Unlike paintings and sculptures, today, photography is universal. It is what people understand, therefore he feels that there is a visual culture that does exist in the region. In the past five years, many galleries have created photography programs. That goes to show that there is an ever growing community that has an interest in photography.
In the coming years, Dar El-Nimer aspires to bring other emerging and established international photographers who have an interest in the Arab world and would like to share their experience with the Middle Eastern public.