© Josef Koudelka

  “Because the exile sees things both in terms of what has been left behind and what is actually here and now, there is a double perspective that never sees things in isolation”1  

Photographers working in a documentary style hold a certain sensitivity to momentary or customarily inarticulate views of a present in gradual or sudden demise. This tendency in turn draws them irrevocably toward scenes of injustice, of charismatic whimsicality or toward the many varied shades of neglect. More often than not, the quality of these photographic insights centres on the interstices of ordinary expression – the unremarkable joining syntax in the passage of everyday time. Where these documentary stylings depict people, this sensitivity can elucidate a tenderness that is equal in measure to the quality of the image recorded. People and objects, after all and when cunningly observed, unwittingly render up in gesture and action the terms by which we may intuit the quality of their lived experience.


© Josef Koudelka


Since all photographs are at the same time self-portraits, regardless of their outward subject, the tenor of a group of arresting images will disclose some aspect of the inner workings of its maker. This in part explains the extraordinary depth of feeling we can have for a body of work. It is a sustaining reciprocal relation between the rendering of a subject, and the complex of personal traits that led to the making of the image that brings new people, and new memories so forcefully into our lives.

Koudelka’s Exiles is often, and appropriately celebrated for the sorrowful, solitary and nevertheless beguiling manner in which it relates determinedly lyrical fragments of late 20th century Europe. The work does so in the terms of an isolation that is itself a product of the many interregna and conflicts that marked that period of history. However Koudelka’s “rhetorical estrangement”, which is to say the manner in which his work “makes a dramatic synthesis of … isolation”2, is of a piece with tenderness, and a tender curiosity. This is borne out in his ability to be proximate and yet unobserved as a photographer of the miniature personal constellations of everyday life. This is everywhere evidenced in Exiles, in his capacity to elicit those gentle revelatory gestures from subjects he has managed not to startle – subjects he has lulled into articulate vulnerability.

But Exiles is a direct product of Koudelka’s exile and eventual asylum (in London, then Paris) following the illicit publication of his photographic record of the Russian invasion of Prague in 1968. Consequently the quality of peripatetic isolation that runs like bedrock through the book is not only analogous to his personal circumstance, it is the measure of it. The photographs that make up the book represent Koudelka’s reclamation of some personal freedom from his enforced exile.


© Josef Koudelka


To be exiled is to be forbidden the right to forget; it is to be dispossessed in such a way that one can never be oblivious to life, forced to live life in the purposeful absence of an essential precept of memory: the possibility of return. To be exiled is to be at the same time in no place, beyond the living traces of all that is held dear and never quite absent. To be exiled is to find oneself always excluded and thus always on the outskirts of one's world, alone with one's self. Exile's most cruel and effective expulsion is of the person from the precincts of their selfhood.

The emptiness, the distant removes and the sweeping distances that flicker through the pages of Joseph Koudelka's Exiles seem to me to form a poignant elegy, an attempt to repossess what has been taken from him in his exile – or perhaps a claim lain on an existence that was never exactly of his own choosing. There is a sense in every distant view of the hope that something more lies beyond the horizon. Equally therefore, there is the sense that in all the moments of placedeness captured by his lense, there is also an accompanying mournful recognition of the photographer’s own distance, and of his own solitude.

Put simply, it is through the elegant and compact manner in which Koudelka describes foreign places that we sense his own estrangement. There is something delightfully rebellious in this act – a willful embrace of new strange foreign territory brought about by the photographer’s exclusion from his home. Photography as an act of resistance.


© Josef Koudelka


We begin the book with an image of time and place, an epigrammatic gambit that speaks to the confluence of circumstances that led to the publication of this work: (i) the photographer’s watch on his arm at twenty minutes past noon, (ii) an abandoned city street in Prague in 1968 and thus (iii) a visual statement of the central relationship between the photographer, his subject, place and time. What follows is a sequence of images, grouped into clutches of 10 to 15, in which Koudelka repeatedly captures the steady ordinary procession of life, distilled into moments of everyday isolation – so that the quality of solitude becomes a reflection of Koudelka’s exile and, through this, a metre in which the quintessence of place can be articulated. As the photographer himself states, “my photographs are not a diary but a reflection of myself to the world”3.

What Koudelka so precisely evokes in his compositions is the feeling of place. He uncovers his subjects at those moments where they are blithely embedded in their own surroundings, where they are most natively at home. Moreover each of his subjects seem to be strangers to him, a notion that is underscored in the way that his compositions continually suggest that he remains unseen by them. As discrete sequences, each clutch of images is punctuated by solitary subjects, framed in tributary views rather than grand frontal perorations – shot through with images taken in the midst of transit, or idle pauses in the flow of uneventful activity. Here, an expression of instinctive approbation for a child at play revealed in the unthinking laying of hand on a shoulder; there, the formalities of ‘elevenses’ interrupted by some scurrilous intrusion beyond a windowpane.


© Josef Koudelka

Set within the solitary quality of the images is a thick vein of wit that is everywhere evident – in the egg-sucking sternness of old biddies drinking tea, in the hauteur of a woman scurrying determinedly along a Parisian street, in the conjunction of horses drawing a cart with a young angel Gabriel pedalling past on his bicycle, white plimsolls on his feet. As Max Kozloff notes with great insight, despite the time-frame in which the photographs were taken (1968 – 1994) there is no trace of “the characteristic Jamboree of the late twentieth century”. This is likely due to Koudelka’s documentary sensitivity for the passing present – since he claims that he is “drawn to what is ending, to what will soon no longer exist”4.
© Josef Koudelka

Koudelka’s unremitting exile is, I think, a perversely beneficial influence on the character of the images he ultimately published in the book. (The plural in the title, incidentally, makes him of a piece with his many gypsy subjects). I think that precisely because of his roving untethered freedom he was able to marvel at the strange characteristic gestures of other people’s everyday experience to such a marvellously poetic result. Banishment as freedom, if we can allow a smudge of romanticism:

“I needed to know that nothing was waiting for me anywhere, that the place I was supposed to be was the place where I was at that moment, and that when there was nothing more to photograph there, then it was time to leave for another place” – Josef Koudelka5

I think these notions are tied together in the recurrent compositional trends of his images. Koudelka's preference for geometric arrangement is not a purely aesthetic conceit, but also a narrative one - his compositions dramatise the kind of recognition of life that one can only feel so keenly from its periphery. His eye is always at an angle: over a shoulder, off to one side, moving steadily against a current in order more properly to see its course.

Koudelka seems always to have surprised or beguiled his subjects, to have happened upon them through deliberate stealth, to have tracked them with patient fascination. The recurring motif of the triumvirate in Exiles suggests a reclusive and unfathomable loneliness. Think how often in this book he fixes upon a graduation between three faces, and then think how intent and unobserved he must be in order to articulate their obliviousness – his exile. Think how deeply he must be soluble, dispersed among the movements of others. His is the most haunting and ghostly presence in each of these rich images.


© Josef Koudelka


While there is in all of these photographs a sensitivity to the pace and gestures of all life's varied rituals, there is not the merest trace of touch, of joy, of embrace, even of acceptance. There are no portraits in this work - none, at least, in the thoroughly conventional sense. There are only the shadows of people passing, of the eye hidden in surprise or of the photographer swiftly receding from view. The book is undeniably, joyously, poetic. But it is also restless, aloof. It is unsettling because it never settles.

“All corners of the earth are exactly the same,” says the book’s Victor Hugo epigram. “Anywhere one can dream is good, providing the place is obscure, and the horizon is vast”. One might wonder, over the course of these images, about the nature of those dreams, about the vastness of that imagined horizon. In all the numerous places visited by Koudelka's lens there is not a singular but rather a cumulative sense of the vastness of that horizon. It is a horizon that enfolds each of the unbidden moments he has framed. It punctuates each picture in the book, if only to show how in the recognition of such a vast array of experience that at numerous corners of the earth our experiences are exactly the same.

There is an analogous sense of loneliness in many of the pictures André Kertesz made in New York – both photographers created images that partly functioned as analogues for the wandering photographer far from home. But Koudelka’s images embrace his isolation in a way that Kertesz’s do not – there is a proximity to subject throughout Exiles that betrays Koudelka’s affinity for his subjects, and this distinguishes Koudelka from Kertesz. I imagine the difference between the two to be similar, after a fashion, to the distinction between the solitary and the lonely.


© Josef Koudelka


The closing image of Exiles, a delicate sliding set of waves raised in the wake of a ferry some distance from the shore, is in fact a self-portrait – Koudelka has been the wave that followed seamlessly in the wake of these fragmented moments, unseen as all eyes face toward the action, all the while unwittingly becoming themselves its focus. Moreover Koudelka’s attachment to his subjects mirrors that of the waves that trace the path of the unseen ferry: he is only tangentially and temporarily attached to the moments he frames. At a certain distance, Koudelka will detach from their wake and continue onward along his seemingly aimless wandering through exile, tracking other pieces of the flotsam jetsam that drift in itinerant fashion across his path.


© Josef Koudelka


If photography can express a relation toward the past in the terms of an indefinite present, which it say if it retains a sense both of recognition and anticipation, then it has the capacity both to animate the past and interrogate an unforeseen future. Seen in this light, a photographic disposition toward the world is analogous to that which one must take up when catching fish with one’s hands: the standing-astride of two times, expressing an expectation of a yet-to-be achieved resolution. Seen in the context of Koudelka’s book, therefore, the articulation of exile can continue to represent a declaration of hope.


1 Edward Said, "Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals," in Representations of the Intellectual, (New York: Vintage, 1994), p.44

2 Max Kozloff, "Koudelka's Theatre of Exile," in Lone Visions, Crowded Frames: Essays on Photography, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994)

3 http://www.artmedia.ch/porter/PHOTOGRAPHY/MEETINGS/Koudelka.html

4 http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2006/nov/18/photography

5 Ibid.


Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa