Award-winning photojournalist Jan Šibík on the death of his trade, mobile pics and the coronavirus crisis

Jan Šibík, photo: Adam Kebrt / Czech Radio

Jan Šibík is one of the Czech Republic's top photojournalists. He has undertaken assignments in hotspots around the world, including Rwanda, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iran as well as capturing the tumultuous events of the Velvet Revolution in his own homeland. In a recent interview for Czech Radio, the photographer spoke about the demise of photojournalism, what he thinks about mobile phone pics and his plans to produce a book of photographs about the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

For over two decades Jan Šibík was constantly on the go, travelling from one hotspot to another in search of photos that told a story of suffering, war or oppression. He covered the genocide in Rwanda, the desolation of women living in slums in Kenya, the massacres and mutilations in Sierra Leone and the devastation wreaked on Sri Lanka by the 2005 tsunami. He says those adrenalin-filled days are now over, not because at the age of 57 he wouldn’t be ready to pack a backpack and go, but  because the interest in photojournalism is waning and the magazines and journals that he sold his photos to are on their way out.

Photo: archive of Jan Šibík

“There is nothing like seeing things with your own eyes. Then you can form an opinion. Sometimes the pictures really helped. That is what I liked about it, but in the past our work had greater significance, a greater impact than it has today, because people read magazines and reacted to them. Today the interest is waning, journalism is changing radically and I often say that photojournalism is on its way out. Today people are fascinated by their own reporting on social networks, fascinated by selfies. They take pictures of the food they eat, the places they go. Interest in what is happening at the other end of the globe is waning. Look at the icons of journalism –Time and Newsweek – Time magazine has seen a drop in sales and Newsweek continues in some lifestyle format –but it is no longer what it was.”

Photo: archive of Jan Šibík

Jan Šibík says that he gets letters from young people who confide that they want to follow in his footsteps and ask for advice on how to best go about it. He says that the letters are flattering and while he does not want to disillusion them, he always points out that a photojournalist’s life today is fraught with problems. He himself admits that he has to think carefully about where he is heading, and how he will use the pictures he takes.

“It happens every day that someone in the street comes up to me and says something like “Mr. Šibík, are you not in Beirut?” Well, I am not. I would have no place to publish the pictures I took if I did go. I am sorry about that, but I no longer feel the burning urge to go that would have consumed me years ago, that would have made me sleepless and breathless. Now when I head somewhere I think a lot about how I will use the pictures, whether they will fit into my next book. That is my main source of income these days and I am delighted that so many people are still willing to buy my books. I run my own e-shop which means extra work storing and posting the books, but it allows me to continue travelling.”

Jan Šibík,  photo: Juan Pablo Bertazza

Jan Šibík’s last big exhibition, organized on the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution last year,  showed close to one hundred black and white images of the dramatic events of the time as he captured them in his mid-twenties. His book featuring a collection of his best photos – among them unarmed protestors eye-to-eye with riot police and the moment Václav Havel embraced Alexander Dubček on learning that the Communist leadership had stood down  – was a huge success. Now he is working on documenting an equally dramatic, but less happy, event – the coronavirus crisis and the state of emergency that has emptied Prague’s well-known tourist sites.

“I told myself something is happening here that needs to be documented. So I took pictures of people and places. The people were often nervous and angry and didn’t like it but I kept going because it would provide testimony of the times. I photographed the empty tourist sites where the atmosphere was suddenly completely different. When you are taking pictures you either go where something is happening and snap the action as it happens or go to a place that you want to capture and wait –possibly days – for the right moment. Like a picture of an empty Charles Bridge, which is not a problem these days. But in order for it to be special you need at least one person. So you go there a hundred times and then on the one-hundred-and-first time you see a lone nun who kneels down to pray – and you have your perfect picture. I went out to take pictures every day throughout the first state of emergency.”

Haiti,  photo: Jan Šibík

Jan Šibík says that while the public is now sick and tired of the coronavirus crisis he hopes that as time passes people will want to look back and see what it was like –with hindsight.

Although mobile phones and social networks changed the profession he so passionately loves, he does not shun them and often leaves his camera at home to work only with his mobile phone. Moreover he runs workshops for young people where he teaches them how to take good pictures even on a mobile.

“Thanks to mobile phones photography has a new lease on life. Photojournalism is on its way out but photography has become widespread and even with a mobile you can teach people how to take good pictures, how to get the composition right and what to watch out for. I myself take pictures on my mobile and do not feel it is degrading. The end result is about the idea, the composition of what you are capturing. It does not matter if you are holding a mobile or an expensive camera. If the photo contains a powerful message it will impress me as much as if it had been taken on the most expensive camera in the world.”

Authors: Barbora Tachecí , Daniela Lazarová
run audio