Nationality Doubtful

Tom Overton

France, 1976. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

Earlier this month I went on a press junket to the Josef Koudelka retrospective in Madrid. Reading the catalogue on the plane, I realised I was living the inverse of the romantic myth that grew up around the work I was going to see. Stuart Alexander’s essay describes the photographer in 1973, not long after he left Czechoslovakia for the West:

He had just finished eating an orange that someone had given him earlier in the day. He was happy, lying down on his bed in the mountains, looking up at the sky and thinking about the passengers in a plane flying overhead... comfortable in the plane, eating chicken and drinking wine. Would they think about the vagabond on the ground in his sleeping bag? Koudelka wrote as though he were speaking to them: ‘I have none of the belongings and comforts that you have on the plane but I have everything that you don’t have.’

His photograph France, 1976 constructs him as an engagé wandering intellectual: a still-life of a picnic – milk, baguette, cheese, pen-knife, half-eaten apple – on a copy of the International Herald Tribune (‘Ten Said Slain in Soweto as Black Strike Holds... UN Defers Vietnam’s Application... Middle-Class Youths Swell Ranks of Argentine Terrorists’). The way it fixes a place and a moment makes it a sequel to Hand and Wristwatch, 1968, taken in Wenceslas Square in August of that year. Koudelka was there as the Warsaw Pact forces rolled in; the images were smuggled to the United States and published in August 1969.

Until 1984, the Invasion series was credited only to P.P. (‘Prague Photographer’), which added another layer of meaning to a set of images that are already about an uneasy relationship between individual identity and nationality; some of the negatives were scratched by a Dutch photographic agency to protect the identities of the protesters.

Despite the pseudonym, Koudelka felt there was a risk of reprisal, and claimed asylum in England in 1970. He lost his Czech passport in a fish-and-chip shop – which could be seen as a de facto declaration of allegiance to the UK – but though he took English lessons, he never became a British citizen. England was a staging-post for journeys into Europe, and every time he came back across the UK border, the authorities recorded his status with the initials N.D.: ‘Nationality Doubtful’. That’s the title of the retrospective in Madrid. In various languages at the opening, Koudelka insisted that the only thing separating the soldiers from the people in the Invasion series was who had a Kalashnikov. For him, the inscription ‘Nationality Doubtful’ expresses a doubt that nationality means anything at all.

Still, Koudelka eventually took French nationality in 1986, and his work is full of tangible signs of an intangible concept. His 2008-12 Wall series, photographs of the separation barrier in the occupied West Bank, bring to mind the more abstract pictures he was taking as an engineer behind the Iron Curtain: he’s as much a re-visitor as a wanderer.

Among the photographs, there’s a dog-eared map, stuck together with sellotape and annotated with locations and contact numbers for festivals in Southern Italy, a relic of his decades-long documentation of European Roma culture. It’s a cliché that memorable photography often relies on the accident of being in the right place at the right time. Koudelka’s trick is to use it to show that the same is always true of nationality.