Czech-English photographer Ray Baseley on his art, activism and standing with Belarus

Second Milion Chvilek protest at Letná plain, photo: Michal Bauer

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the young Czech-English photographer Ray Baseley travelled throughout Europe shooting festivals music and shows for pioneering electronic music giants such as The Chemical Brothers and New Order, and the Soulwax spinoff 2manydjs. But his day job, so to speak, has long been as a coordinator for various civic initiatives and political protest groups, such as Kaputin, A Million Moments for Democracy and most recently We Stand Behind Belarus, which works to support activists there and help inform Czechs about their plight. 

Before getting into his politics, I began by asking Ray Baseley to share a bit of his personal story.

“I’m half English, half Czech. My father is from Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, and my mother is from Prague. He works in the event production business, and they met while he was on one of those jobs. And I centre on activism and event production myself, and within that photography, mainly.

Free Belarus 2020,  photo: Jan Skiman

“Over the years, I’ve worked with many kinds of activist groups, helping them organising productions and things like that. Most recently, I worked with Milion chvilek pro demokracii (A Million Moments for Democracy) on their big protests in Prague and right now I’m working with our project Stojíme za Běloruskem (We Stand Behind Belarus) to support Belarussians with a direct media campaign in the Czech Republic that’s starting soon.

“So that’s on the activism side. And apart from that, I also organise independent events when culture is alive – which really isn’t the case right now. And photography of concerts.”

You grew up in Prague… How did you get into photography?

“Well, photography was always something close to me from the family side. My father always had a camera with him – that’s the kind of general story that everyone had, and it’s the same for me, really. So, at the age of 11 or 12, I got my first camera and started.

“And out of that, I came to a love of analogue photography and later normal professional digital photography. What analogue taught me was to centre on each picture because you’re limited by the film, and going forward, I came more to capturing concerts and events – and mainly concerts of kind of alternative artists from England and Prague.”

Kaputin at Prague Castle,  photo: Petr Vrabec

And did that start with you following your father to work?

“Yeah. My father has the kind of ethic of firstly build yourself up, and I’ll give you a chance once you’re ready. When he saw that I was already getting somewhere, he gave me the chance with an artist he was working with, The Chemical Brothers, and I captured their concert in Dublin, and then it kind of carried on and now I’m possibly their main photographer.”

I understand you now have an exhibition at the British Design Museum…

“Yes, I was lucky with that. The British Design Museum cooperated with The Chemical Brothers and other artists in the electronic music sphere to produce an exhibition called ‘Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers’. It shows the history of electronic music, the concerts and what’s behind the shows. As part of it, I was asked to present my photography, and a few pictures are in the London museum now until the end of February.”

I’d like to ask you when you first became political, in a sense, when you first got into activism, and with what group or through what event.

“So, I got into activism about four years ago with a group called Kaputin [as in “kaput for Putin”], which, in their words, fight oligarchism and the Russian influence in European countries. That’s their mission statement. And I started with supporting them on the production side of their protests.

Riot in Prague 2020,  photo: Alena Spálenská

“I later left the central part of this group to come to Milion chvilek, where I became a production coordinator and worked with them on the spring wave of protests and later at the protest at Letná, where 250,000 people met [the largest public protest since the Velvet Revolution, calling for Prime Minister Andrej Babiš to resign over alleged conflicts of interest and undermining the independence of the judiciary].” That was really an amazing experience, to build up the wave of protest.”

Going back for a moment to Kaputin, they’ve done some quite creative protests, like sending inflatable green sex dolls onto the grounds of the Russian Embassy [reminiscent of the ‘Little Green Men’ that Putin sent to Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula]. Can you tell me about some you were involved with or photographing?

“With Kaputin, I was mainly in charge of communicating with media and on the production side, coordinating the protests when they were happening. I wasn’t actually part of that one with the green characters being flown over the wall of the Russian Embassy.

“But I think a great one, which was also seen all over the world, was when we built a wall out of big cardboard boxes in front of Prague Castle, which had a message for [President] Zeman. It was a really creative process – a flash mob, where were got about 80 people to carry these metre-tall, half-metre wide boxes there, right in front of the Prague Castle gates.

“We also printed out these huge banners that we out over bridges in Prague when the Russian motorbikers [the Night Wolves] rode through Prague and when the Alexandrovci [official army choir of the Russian armed forces] where we dressed up as if organisers of the concert and gave out leaflets about what the group was really about and supporting. Those were the most memorable protests I was a part of with Kaputin.”

Protest at Main Station,  photo: Michal Bauer

Earlier on, you alluded to Covid-19 and how it’s affected your artistic work, but also obviously the activism side. How have the strategies changed, in this strange time, and how do you measure success?

“Reacting to Covid and the actual process?”

Right – in a way, you can judge the success of an action by the number of people who turn out along with the media exposure, but these days that’s not feasible…

“Yes, the situation has changed. I remember we did one protest with Milion chvilek in June that was already a challenge because we had to do it in sections on the Old Town Square, disperse the people so they were two metres apart. We went the social distancing way even if we didn’t have to. But it was advisable.

“And really now, within the last few weeks [with the second wave of infections], the only way of doing a protest now is in small, limited groups – not a public one but more of a direct public action, something like we did with Kaputin, in front of a public institution.”

So, if we could turn to Stojíme za Běloruskem (We Stand Behind Belarus). On the website, you not that you signed an open letter with various prominent groups. Has there been much back and forth with the Czech Foreign Ministry itself? They make a point of saying that they work with civil society in these target areas, like Belarus, Cuba and other less than free societies.

“We Stand Behind Belarus is a media project under a kind of umbrella groups of activists to support Belarus – Milion chvilek, Amnesty International, Člověk v tísni (People in Need), Belarussian in the Czech Republic, Prague Civil Society Centre – all focusing on direct support to Belarus. We’re supporting Belarussian and the independent press directly, and as you say, communicate with the Foreign Ministry.

Milion Chvilek protest march 2020,  photo: Tom Rimpel

“Some of us have participated in the project called Medevac, which evacuated Belarussian activists who are and were in a bad medical state. With the help of the foreign and interior ministries, the Czech Republic has evacuated more than 40 people from Belarus. So, that’s quite amazing and a direct action by our country. Medevac is a project that supports countries in such times of despair.”

“But coming back to Stojíme za Běloruskem, we’ve started a project online informing the Czech public about current developments and actions in Belarus, but right now we’re started to put up big billboards around the country, mainly in Prague, with pictures and stories of Belarussian political activists who’ve been persecuted and locked up in prison. Already tomorrow, we’re mounting a few more around Prague of people like Ihar Losik and Maria Kalesnikava to tell Czechs their stories.

So, to make the oppression in Belarus much more tangible, by putting names and faces to persecuted people… Is this the first such billboard campaign you’ve worked on?

“Yes. With Milion chvilek, we never went the billboard, offline or poster way. We always focused on our target group by communicating directly through social media, mainly. So, this is the first media campaign I’ve participated in going the extra mile of targeting the offline world and targeting people who may not really be connected to the matter – and that’s what we really want to do; to show the wider public what’s going on there, and that it’s something we [Czechs] should care about. Because it’s something that we went through in the past.”

And is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you would like to add?

“Yes. I actually also work on a campaign called We Make Events that’s live all around Europe and the world, with my father, because he’s a production manager. And in Prague, we’ve lit up a few venues like Forum Karlín, O2 Arena and a load of grassroots venues – we lit them up in red about a month ago, and we’re continuing with this campaign to ask for support for businesses in the cultural sector [impacted by Covid-19] – because that’s something also really close to our hearts.”