Panorama Coffee-table book with a difference collects photographs taken surreptitiously by communist-era secret police

28-05-2009 10:19 | Ian Willoughby

At Prague’s Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, Vladimír Bosák went through thousands of photographic negatives from the files of the StB, Czechoslovakia’s communist-era secret police, selecting the 200 plus images that now form a fascinating coffee-table photography book, Prague Through the Lens of the Secret Police.

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Milan Kundera, photo: Institute for the Study of Totalitarian RegimesMilan Kundera, photo: Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes The photos were taken surreptitiously and their subjects were completely oblivious, says Bosák.

“Usually they were walking on the street, they were talking to somebody. For example [philosopher] Zdeněk Neubauer is leaving his door, Cardinal Tomášek is getting into his car, some nuns are walking on the street – they are quite innocent activities.”

In the 1970s and ‘80s, teams of undercover agents spied on those considered enemies of the state, in an attempt to uncover their contacts and underground networks. Some of the people they monitored are well known today.

“Václav Havel, his brother Ivan Havel, Milan Kundera, writers, basically they photographed the elite. Many of them are still alive, so it was interesting to see their reaction when they could see their picture. They never had any idea it even existed. They sometimes knew that they were being surveilled, but they didn’t know that they were photographed.”

Alena Hromádková came from a liberal family of lawyers and was herself involved in distributing underground literature. In one StB shot she is seen meeting a contact from Brno at a shopping arcade on Prague’s Karlovo náměstí square in 1983. At the exact same spot, I asked her if she had any idea she was being photographed?

Alena HromádkováAlena Hromádková “Theoretically I could expect it. But in those times you developed a, how should I put it, self-preservation mechanism of deliberate forgetting, ignoring, suppressing any idea of being in danger.”

How does it feel 25 years later seeing these surreptitiously taken pictures of yourself?

“I am pleased to be absolutely indifferent, emotionally uninvolved. It’s a closed chapter.”

Don’t you get any sense of nostalgia like you would with any old photographs?

“No. I am interested in my clothes [laughs], what kind of winter coats and other things I used to wear. Some I still wear at my cottage. That’s all.”

As for how the StB carried out surveillance of people like Alena Hromádková, they were quite big operations, says Vladimír Bosák, back at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.

“Usually one person was on average surveilled by a dozen people, so he would not recognise that he is being watched. There were usually four or five cars, and four photographers.”

Tell us about the cameras that were used, and how they were hidden.

Miloš Forman, photo: Institute for the Study of Totalitarian RegimesMiloš Forman, photo: Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes “They used a Krasnogorsk KGB camera, made at a factory near Moscow. It had a very sharp lense and was hidden in a handbag – usually a lady was working with this. The lense protruded to an opening in the handbag, where the cover closing mechanism usually is. Another camera was the Robot, which was a camera with mechanical spring, so they didn’t require batteries. They were pre-focussed.”

How do these photographs differ from regular photographs? I presume for example that the angles must be slightly unusual.

“Yes, they were usually shot from the hip. It’s really interesting because adult persons really seldom noticed they were being photographed, while children…in some photographs it’s possible to see that the child senses something, because it’s at their eye-level.”

Bosák says the photographers accidentally created a unique and authentic record of the pre-revolution era.

“It shows the raw feeling of the time. It shows the street, it shows place, and it shows the feeling of it. Memories of that time are quite…twisted. For example, even newsreels from the ‘70s or ‘80s on television show a false reality. There is always some ideology behind it and they try to present a false picture. But it’s a paradox that the StB photographers captured the raw reality of the time. Their goal was to get information about a certain person – as a by-product they captured the movement on the street, the background, life. Anybody who looks at these photographs has a feeling of that time.”

What do these pictures tell us about the Prague of that era?

Vladimír BosákVladimír Bosák “Prague at first sight looks like a grey, boring city filled with scaffolding. But under this all there is the magic of a centuries-old city. It’s protruding there in those shadows. I admit that I’ve played with it, to really show in those pictures that genius loci, which even real socialism couldn’t kill totally.”

As well as in the passage at Karlovo náměstí, Alena Hromádková is seen in the book in shaky photos taken in front of the Municipal House and at Flora metro station. Today she recalls the relatively grey – but also relatively empty – Prague of the last decades of communism.

“In those times Prague was very beautiful in winter only. All the decay was mercifully hidden under the snow. So maybe I miss the quiet Charles Bridge…I could meet my British friends in the most peaceful – paradoxically – part of central Europe.”

What’s your impression of this book in general?

“It’s technically and aesthetically very interesting…I am not quite sure about the contents and the message. I don’t know the majority of the people described like me…in a similar way. But anyway, it’s very interesting and I think it’s challenging for the new generation, who are not interested in history very much.”

The book Prague Through the Lens of the Secret Police has been issued by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.

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