Before he ever picked up a camera, the internationally renowned Czech photographer Antonín Kratochvíl led a colourful life to say the least. After escaping from Czechoslovakia in 1967, he spent time in an Austrian refugee camp, was imprisoned in Sweden and joined the French Foreign Legion, with whom he fought in a war before later deserting. In the second part of an interview conducted at his long-term home in New York, Antonín Kratochvíl discusses, among other things, how his own experiences have shaped his approach to photography.
“When I photograph these people I don’t really feel guilty, like most photographers who probably came from some safe middle class background. I don’t have that. Maybe I can look at it in an unflinching sort of way.”
Have there been times when photographs you’ve taken have had an impact on policy decisions by a government, or had any impact in terms of things changing in the world?
“I don’t think photography can change things. But from a historical point of view it’s very important. People remember the Nazi era, the concentration camps, versus the gulag – there are no pictures from the gulag. I’m sure it was horrible, just like the Nazi era, and it lasted longer…so photography from the historical point of view can make an imprint.
“But, yeah, some of my pictures were used in Congress – AIDS, when they were voting on how much money they should allocate to fight AIDS in Africa.
“Just now I’m dealing with the Red Foundation, who’d like to use the pictures I did of these AIDS people who after drugs get better, so they want to use that to promote their charity and drum up some money.
“So you can help, you can help, but to change the world, no, I don’t think so.”
You’ve been in countless conflict zones, you’ve seen things that probably 99 percent of people literally couldn’t imagine, in Rwanda and other places. Do these…images keep you awake at night sometimes?
“You should ask my wife, because she claims that they do, that I do strange things at night. But I don’t remember, so I’m fine.”
And otherwise are you affected, in terms of, I don’t know, if you hear a car backfiring do you dive on the ground?
Do you ever think, I’ve had enough of this, this is too hard, I want to stay at home and do easier work?
“Yeah, I always do, though of course after a while I change my mind and I go. But it’s not about being there, really, it’s getting there, getting on the plane and getting through the hassle, security and all these things. That’s the worst for me, that’s what turns me off. And the jetlag, of course. But other than that, I love what I do.”
“Oh yes, that’s the experience I get hired for. I can hit the tarmac and start working, because I organise myself, I get fixers, local help, and I can work through the jetlag, and minimise the risks. That’s invaluable – you can just learn that by experience.”
Journalism has changed a bit in recent decades. Most newspapers have fewer foreign pages than they used to. Has that affected your work?
“I think the internet is an amazing tool. I heard the other day that I have a big popular following in Indonesia, but I was never published there. And that’s from the internet.”
In the 1990s you co-founded your own agency, Seven – why did you set up your own agency?
“Actually it was done in 2000. Many of us were part of little agencies that were being bought by Corbis, by Microsoft people, Getty…we felt like we were losing control of our product, of our voice. So we started our own agency, which was the first agency that was completely digital, only on the internet. We showed other people the possibilities – we were the first guys really out there.”
You teach as well – what are you hoping your students get out of it?
“I’m fighting clichés. I’m trying to open up new possibilities for them, that they can tilt the horizon, or have unsharp images sometimes, a more subjective way of thinking and working. And it works.”
I’ve read you described in Czech newspapers as Čechoameričan, Czech-American. Do you consider yourself half-American now after living here so long?
“Do I look like half a goat to you? No, I’m Czech all the way. People just put a spin on you, sometimes because they want to put a distance between them and you. I don’t really feel like an American.
“I don’t really like being called Czech-American. I liked to be called a Czech living in America – that’s more like it.”
“I feel great. They’re the people I know the best, because I’m one of them. There’s also a kind of love and hate thing, but you work through it because, you know, people are the same everywhere. If there’s such a thing as a national character, then I understand them. It’s no problem. I love going back.”
“We’re toying with the idea. We already tried to do it in the 1990s, but we realised it’s very difficult to cross that bridge. Because you don’t have the same point of reference with people who stayed behind.
“Compared to when I was back in the early ‘90s, I think people now in the Czech Republic caught on. They are kind of warped by communism, they can’t help it. So am I, to some extent, but I managed to leave 40 years earlier than they did, or whatever.
“It’s difficult, but if you choose your friends I think you can live very well anywhere.”