A forearm projects into the picture. The night before, the tanks of the Red Army had rolled into Prague. The rumour of a demonstration in protest spread like wildfire through the city. It was to assemble on Wenceslas Square late that afternoon. It was in fact a plot by Moscow’s agents, to provoke an incident that would justify the invasion. Happily, the people of Prague were warned in time. At the hour appointed, the square was more or less empty, as is witnessed by the photograph. This image is the first of Exils, the series that Koudelka would assemble through the 1970s and ’80s. Not long after having photographed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Koudelka decided to leave his country. That winter, he lived in London then in Paris. After that he went on the road in Europe, with his eyes peeled. It was during this period that he produced his most magical images, which would go into Exiles. They were shown in Paris in 1984, and then assembled in 1988 in what became one of the most greatly admired of photographic books, subsequently twice republished.
In 2016, Josef Koudelka decided to present to the Centre Pompidou all 75 of the Exils photographs. This exhibition of his work at the Centre presents some of the most representative images from that series together with a number of previously unpublished pictures printed for the occasion. The exhibition concludes with an extraordinary series of self-portraits taken by Koudelka in the course of his travels and never before shown in public. Also included, and exhibited for the very first time, are the albums in which the photographer arranges his images in accordance with formal and thematic criteria. The public today has but a very fragmented conception of the Exils series, known essentially through isolated images. The exhibition at the Centre Pompidou offers a more profound and comprehensive insight, showing how the project developed and for the first time illuminating how it came to be.
“To be in exile is simply to have left ones country and to be unable to return. Every exile is a different, personal experience. Myself, I wanted to see the world and photograph it. That’s forty-five years I’ve been travelling. I’ve never stayed anywhere more than three months. When I found no more to photograph, it was time to go. When I took the decision not to return, I realized that I wanted an experience of the world that I could not have imagined when I lived in Czechoslovakia.”
(Josef Koudelka, interviewed by Christian Caujolle in Le Monde, 23 May 2015)