Koudelka taught me how to see, says helmer of One World film on great Czech photographer

'Koudelka Shooting Holy Land', photo: Gilad Baram / One World festival

Perhaps best known from his powerful images from the streets of Prague during the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, Josef Koudelka – who emigrated soon after those events – must rank as the greatest living Czech photographer. A treat for photography buffs at this year’s One World festival of human rights documentaries has been Koudelka Shooting Holy Land, in which we follow the protagonist, now in his late 70s, as he captures the building of the wall between Israel and Palestine as well as the region’s stunning landscape. The documentary is the work of Gilad Baram, himself a photographer, who was Koudelka’s assistant for five years. When we spoke at One World, I asked Baram how the Czech’s relationship to the Holy Land had begun.

“Actually, if I go to the very beginning, I think Josef’s relationship with the Holy Land started when he was a child and had a little Bible for children next to his bed [laughs].

“I think that is always how he describes it. He had never been in what is today Israel and Palestine before this project. But I think this relationship, or maybe a certain image of the place, started when he was a child.

“But him arriving in the actual place was part of a group project of photographers that was initiated by Frederic Brenner, a French photographer.

“They had this vision to bring a group of very well-known names in the world of photography to Israel and to expose the place to them and give them an extensive period of time to look at it and perhaps develop their individual projects.

“This project, which is now called This Place, has been touring around and it’s now in the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

“I know this was Koudelka’s first encounter with Israel and Palestine.”

Gilad Baram, photo: One World festival
And he keeps going back to the places that he photographs?

“Yes. His project, which was called Wall – it came out as a book called Wall – was made throughout four years.

“He had seven visits – each one was around a month – in which we met together and basically toured the land, focusing on the Israeli-built wall in the West Bank.

“We basically had this incredible opportunity to go all along it, from north to south, and really experience, see it, document it.”

Also what’s quite fascinating is that he keeps taking photographs of the same place [on different visits], hoping to get the best possible photo.

“The photographer Koudelka today is a very different photographer from the one who took the photographs here in Prague in 1968. Or before that, when he photographed the Roma communities.

“I think it’s interesting – a photographer evolves, or an artist evolves, throughout their career.

“I think Josef at one point, as he was getting older, turned his interest more to landscape than people.

'Koudelka Shooting Holy Land', photo: Gilad Baram / One World festival
“With that also came a change in his approach, or his way of photographing – which is actually what you see in the film.

“So instead of maybe chasing a moment, trying to catch a moment that maybe you never catch or you do, it turned into more being an approach of waiting, of anticipating a moment.

“Saying that, I think Josef’s photography from the very beginning was very much connected to waiting for a certain moment. Which I think is something he learned in theatre.

“I think Prague ’68 is an exceptional project in his entire oeuvre. Usually when he was photographing Roma communities or later on, he also went back to the same places of ritual, to the same families, and so on.

“So I think he had that already as part of his practice.

“But yes, indeed – this was a surprising thing to learn, or to realise, when I was working with him, that he does insist on perfecting his images.

“Even if one photo is a very good photo he goes back home, he looks at it, he reflects on it, and then with it he goes back again to the place, trying to get it better.

“Till he reaches a point where he thinks, I cannot make it better. And that’s where it ends.”

It’s very interesting in the film to watch his process. You film him taking the photographs and then we see the product of that work. What did you learn from him about what makes a great picture?

“I think that’s impossible for me to say. What I can say is that making this film was a process of learning more than anything else.

'Koudelka Shooting Holy Land', photo: Gilad Baram / One World festival
“If at the beginning I was running around with my camera, trying to encompass his movements and the way that he takes a photograph, I realised throughout the years that in order to portray him, to portray his working process, which I think is one, I would have to adopt the way that he is acting, the way he’s seeing and the way he’s photographing.

“This is where I started slowing down. This is also where I started putting my camera on a tripod and stabilising it.

“And this is why I think it is a film of a photographer making a film about a photographer. It’s very much a film about photography, even before it’s a film about a photographer.

“If you ask me what I learned, I think I learned so many things. But one of them would be basically how to see. How to look at what’s around you. How to – I would say as an Israeli going to the West Bank – how not to ignore something that is just in front of you but you’d maybe rather not see.”

Tell us about your personal relationship with him. How was it working so closely with him?

“Wonderful. And extremely difficult at the same time. This film began really not as a film. I never intended it to be a film.

“I was assigned as his assistant in 2009 when I was a student of photography at the art academy in Jerusalem.

'Koudelka Shooting Holy Land', photo: Gilad Baram / One World festival
“I think it was the second day we were travelling together that I realised that Josef Koudelka does not need an assistant in any way [laughs].

“This is also where I realised that it would be wonderful to spend time with him but I would probably get quite bored and frustrated quite fast.

“So I decided to take my own camera and start creating myself. This is basically what kept me going on.

“As I said, Koudelka does not need an assistant. Therefore the development or the evolution of our relationship was very gradual.

“I think what happened through our time together was that we managed to create a certain relationship of trust.

“We went through all sorts of extreme situations. It was already an extreme situation just to spend your whole day throughout a whole month next to this wall.

“We kept coming back in the evenings feeling devastated, each from their own perspective. But there’s something bonding about it.

Josef Koudelka, photo: Tomáš Vodňanský
“So we created a certain relationship of friendship. Yet Josef is a lone wolf. His work is that and is being made like that.

“So it was all the time this negotiation between the private moment and the togetherness.”

He’s 78 years old now. He seems very energetic and very lively. But do you know, at that age, is he starting to ease off a bit and to kind of conserve his energy?

“Not at all. No. He’s a mountain tiger. He’s incredible actually, in that sense. There’s a lot to learn from him.

“Photography is his world, is his drive. He wakes up in the morning to his photographs, he goes to sleep with them. He’s living it, he’s breathing it, he’s eating it, he’s drinking it.

“And having such a strong motivation keeps you extremely alive.

“So no, he’s not weathered at all. He’s keeping it quite upbeat.”