Czech Press Photo - "a mirror of our lives"

Photo: Jan Rybar

Photography is a great phenomenon of the contemporary world. It captures pieces of our lives and saves them for the future. This is even intensified in the case of press photography which reports news, tells stories and mediates events for the general public. Although we see press photos in newspapers every day, you realize their real significance only in exhibitions such as Czech Press Photo.

Czech Press Photo, an exhibition and a photography competition, started ten years ago, inspired by its older and larger sister event -World Press Photo. Daniela Mrazkova, a keen photographer herself, has been its organizer from the very beginning.

"I think that photojournalism is very important because it reports about our life and world, it means information with a help of pictures. As we know, one photograph is more than a thousand words."

Czech Press Photo got a lot of attention soon. Apart from the general popularity of photography among Czechs, Press Photo started to be considered a mirror of social life and public affairs.

Apart from the Czech Republic, Czech Press Photo has also been presented in a number of countries abroad in recent years.

"As far as I know, in recent years we were in Bulgaria, Holland, in England, in France, in the USA, in Russia.... I think in a lot of countries."

Some pictures which were chosen by the jury as the best had already been printed in newspapers before. On the other hand, it's not unusual for a picture to be widely published only after it succeeds in the competition. Some of the successful photos have become generally very well known. One of them is a picture that was taken by Petr Josek during the severe floods in Moravia in 1997.

"A small town - Uherske Hradiste was flooded completely. On the picture there is a dog swimming in one of the streets in the centre of Uherske Hradiste. This picture won the main prize of Czech Press Photo that year. There is a very interesting history behind the picture. This picture became so famous and people liked it so much that we organized an auction and the picture was sold for a lot of money. But what is interesting, is that several people started to quarrel whose dog it was."

So did you find out whose dog it was?

"I hope so. We found a family, and I hope they are the real owners of the dog. But who knows? Anyway, the dog is very famous."

The Press Photo competition takes place in several categories, such as General News, Daily Life, Sports and Arts. The main prize is for the photo of the year, which can be chosen from any category. The decision is taken by an international jury whose members alternate each year. As the jury chairman Andrej Reiser says, the 2003 photograph of the year "The farmer Rajter's story" by Ibra Ibrahimovic was a bit different than the winning pictures from other years.

"The picture we are talking about won the main prize, because it is a photo that describes well life in the countryside. There is also a kind of optimism which is not so common in these sorts of competitions. Most of the photos presented tend to be from wars, conflicts or social turmoil, but this picture captures a very intimate moment between a grandfather, a farmer, and his young grandson in a car. It is full of joy and optimism."

But this year the jury returned to their former 'tradition' and chose a picture featuring a topic that usually dominates Press Photo. The 2004 photograph of the year is a picture from the funeral of one of the children killed in the terrorist attack in Russia in September this year.

"According to the competition rules, the photograph should describe some important event which happened during the year. This picture captures one of the most appalling events of the year when terrorists killed young children at their school in Russia. The picture very well describes the tragedy of the people who lost their relatives in the attack. The picture captures the emotional moment very well."

The winning picture was taken by Jan Rybar, a journalist with the Czech daily Mlada Fronta Dnes. What surprised me was, that Mr. Rybar is actually a writer and not a photographer by profession. But as he says, to take a picture like that is not just a matter of coincidence.

"Well, you can't really take a picture like that just by random. You really need to have certain level o knowledge and I've been photographing world around for about twenty years, for the last five years quite intensively. But, yes, as you've said I am not a photographer, I'm a writer. So, mostly my main task would be to go somewhere to write something - to bring some experience translated into letters and words. But obviously when you have a chance to be in such a unique place and see such unique things, then you are simply doomed to take pictures, and that was what happened. But I should stress that although I'm not a professional photographer, I've got quite a long way on that road."

How did you take the picture? Tell me something about the background. What was going on then, at that place?

"Well, this is, I think, the day four after the massacre - the Friday when all that happened - and when I went to Beslan it was the day of funerals. So I went to the field that was located just behind the city, and suddenly nearly all the people from the city turned out to be there and they were burying their dead - their children, their parents, their friends."

Photo: Jan Rybar
Was it difficult in that environment, in that place...? I mean sometimes it must be hard to do your job and avoid harassing the people.

Yes, it's obviously very, very sensitive, and it was a very hard task because it is very motional, and it was very tough for me, although I am used to situations like that. I've been to many wars and conflicts but Beslan was something really different - the concentration of fear and pain was so extremely high that you can't just keep away from it. But on the other hand, the people were so out of their minds, so undermined by all the tragedy that they really didn't pay much attention to me."

We are just standing in front of the picture. Tell me, who is that woman who is right in the centre of the picture, showing a portrait of a boy?

"What the picture depicts is unfortunately very typical scene from the Beslan where you can see a mother touching a body of that child. She doesn't move, she is just being there, not moving for many seconds, just saying hello to her son or daughter. Then you can see the grandmother of the daughter. She is screaming, she is yelling, she is desperate, she is asking 'Why did it happen? Why did you take away my little child?'"

It is not a pleasant experience when you decide to visit an exhibition to enjoy your Sunday afternoon and pictures of this sort actually make you rather sad for the rest of the day. Sometimes I would like to see more pictures like the happy "Farmer Rajter's Story", but on the other hand, as we have heard, Press Photo is a mirror of our world and it would be foolish to try to hide from it.