A brief encounter with a man who photographed history

August 1968, photo: Josef Koudelka

You may not be familiar with the name Josef Koudelka, but there is a very good chance you will know his work. And we’re all sure to see a lot more of it as the August anniversary of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia draws nearer. Koudelka’s striking black-and-white shots of tanks in the centre of Prague and other images from that turbulent period are regarded as some of the most important works of photojournalism of the 20th century.

Koudelka’s photographs (nearly 250 of which are now gathered in a new book called 1968 Prague Invasion) are a brilliant but depressing record of that time – depressing because the protests of the young people captured in his pictures were so obviously futile, and because we know what the country’s fate was to be in the aftermath of the invasion.

The pictures, which had been smuggled out and reached the famous Magnum Photos agency, were not published until 1969, and when they did appear in the Sunday Times Magazine they didn’t bear Koudelka’s name. They were credited to PP – Prague Photographer – as he was still in Czechoslovakia and publishing his name could have put him in serious danger.

Koudelka’s authorship of the ’68 photographs was kept secret when he was presented with the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal for photography requiring exceptional courage and enterprise. Remarkably, he had apparently never previously taken photos of any news event.

In 1970 the photographer received a short-term visa to work with Magnum in London and didn’t return to Prague. Nearly four decades later, Koudelka, now 70, has a home in the Czech capital, though the concept of home seems to mean relatively little to him and – as he has done for decades – he spends most of his time travelling the world with a rucksack on his back and a camera in his hand.

Koudelka had that bag over his shoulder when I spotted him completely by chance in a fast-food restaurant on Broadway at the end of April. Given that my mission in New York was to interview interesting Czechs, I naturally approached the great photographer.

Unfortunately, before I could get to the end of my interview request pitch Koudelka had already turned me down with the words “I won’t be doing that”. He avoids speaking to the media (which is, of course, fair enough and not to be argued with), so it was no real surprise when he declined so quickly. But I did at least get to shake the hand of the man who captured those searing images, forty years ago this August.