Photographer Jiří Jírů on life behind the Iron Curtain, exile and ‘Photostroika’

Jiří Jírů, photo: archive of Jiří Jírů

Jiří Jírů developed a love for photography from his uncle, the avant-garde Czech photographer Václav Jírů, before studying the discipline in Brussels and working for US publications such as Time and Newsweek. In the course of his career, Jiří Jírů has snapped celebrities ranging from the Bee Gees to Queen Elizabeth II, and spent almost a decade working as President Václav Havel’s official photographer. Jírů divides his time between Prague and Brussels, which is where he found himself on August 21, 1968:

“I called my mother from Brussels and said ‘listen, should I come back, or should I stay?’ And she said ‘well, first, just stay where you are and let’s see how it is going to develop here. Just wait until the Russians move out’. And they moved out 30 years later, so I stayed there.”

Can you tell me a bit about those first years there in Brussels, how old were you, and how did you find it settling in there?

“I was approximately, I don’t remember exactly, it was such a long time ago, I guess I was around 25 or something. But I was already a photographer in Prague, I was already working for some newspapers as a photographer. And I thought that the transition would go smoothly and that I would continue straight away to be a photographer over there for one of the newspapers. But it was not as easy as I thought, as evidently, my French was really bad. I had only a little English. But in these days, people were very helpful towards refugees from the East, and especially with the Russian tanks being here, it was a big story.

“I started to ask around for work, but it was impossible to get anything, so I thought ‘well, I’ll go to school’. So I went to the movie school over there, they have something like FAMU here – it’s called l’INSAS there – but again, it was in French, which was difficult for me, but little by little I got better.

“But after two years I had to quit, because I had nothing to eat. So, I found a job, which was a little bit degrading for me, because I started to develop photographs for other photographers at a press agency.”

But you started taking photographs for publications like Newsweek and Time, how did you end up getting your big break there?

“I just did it in a way that would be impossible to do today. I just went to the flat of the Time correspondent to the EC, and he received me. He was there for Time magazine, he was their special envoy to the European Union, Roger Beardwood, and he started to use me as a freelancer for Time within the European Commission. So I was there once a week for all the meetings. It was not a very creative job, but it was very well-paid, because at that time, New York paid three or four times more than the European papers.”

Can you tell me about the first time you came back here, and why you eventually decided to come back and live here, at least part time?

“Well, it was probably the biggest decision of my life, after the decision I made to stay in Brussels and not come back here. I developed a clientele basically in New York, the New York Times, Business Week, Newsweek, People Magazine, all these big blue chips, and they sent me here for the anniversary of the Soviet invasion in 1988. So I was on Wenceslas Square, and there was not an enormous protest, but still there was a protest with the police chasing us and everything. And I was very afraid, because I could have been put in prison. I was sentenced for two years in jail – in absentia, of course – for the paragraph on ‘leaving the country’. But as well it was just scary, with all these white helmets at night along Wenceslas Square, and all these big trucks which the protesters were loaded into. I was very, very scared, really.”

You went on to become Václav Havel’s personal photographer when he became president. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Bohumil Hrabal,  Václav Havel,  Bill Clinton | Photo: Jiří Jírů
“Well that was this big decision, because when I had the offer to become the personal photographer of President Havel I thought ‘my god! What am I going to do now?’ So finally, I made this decision, and I came back to take this job, which was very Hollywood-like, because I had an office at the castle looking out over beautiful Prague, it was unbelievable. But, ‘the trouble is’, they said, ‘well, we don’t have a budget for this’. But I said to myself ‘money isn’t really important now, I can make some money selling the pictures to my clients abroad’. So, they gave me a salary of 200 USD a month, and I said ‘yes, why not?’”

You come from a family of photographers and you have even said in the past that you are shocked when you see the similarities between photos taken by your uncle Vaclav and those you have taken yourself. There is this big strong tradition of photography in the Czech Republic, but you studied it formally in Belgium. Would you say that there is something Czech about your photography?

“Photography was basically a family business. My uncle was an avant-garde photographer before the war and after the war. He was actually in Dachau for five years, and so he couldn’t take photos for five years in the middle of his career. But when he came back after the war, he created a photography magazine, it was a quarterly, and I was helping him even before I left Prague. I was young then, around twenty, but he helped me a lot, he taught me, actually. First of all I held his flash and carried his bags around, and then he let me develop his photos even. He made around 11 photo books.

“But it all disappeared. When I came back, he was dead, my aunt was dead. And the archive had been scattered over lots of different places. One of the places his photos ended up was in the archive of the National Museum, and it took me a year to get to look at it and get some copies of these prints. So I made a big exhibition of two generations of photographers, and it was quite a big success.”

It seems like throughout your career you have taken quite a lot of different sorts of photographs. I saw downstairs for example you have one of Arnold Schwarzenegger on the Vltava River – you’ve snapped the Bee Gees, European politicians and done some more portrait-style photos of women. Is there one series or epoch that you are particularly happy with?

“Well, it was a project about the USSR actually. Because in 1987, People magazine decided that they were going to make a special issue called ‘People goes to Russia’. And so I went in a group of journalists, I was sent as a photographer, and even having a Belgian passport, I was still afraid to go there. It was during the time of Perestroika, under Gorbachev. So, in six weeks, we traveled all of the Soviet Union, and this was the biggest work I have ever done. And I made a book out of it – I have it here, I called it ‘Photostroika’. But this was the most interesting work I have ever done. Living in Russia for six weeks, waking up there every morning, it’s amazing.”

When he isn’t in Brussels, Jiří Jírů can often be found in his Prague gallery, on Jaromírova Street, in the capital’s Nusle district. Pay it a visit to see the afore-mentioned picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger afloat on the Vltava, and much more from the photographer’s portfolio.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on April 10, 2009.