Exile Josef Koudelka travelled across Europe to photograph its Romani people


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The Independent Culture

A year after Russian tanks ploughed into Prague in August 1968, Josef Koudelka found himself exiled in London. His photographs of the Soviet-led invasion had been published around the world, and a return to his homeland was considered a risk, reprisals for his work being a very real threat.

Instead, joining the esteemed photographic agency Magnum, Koudelka decided to travel across Europe photographing gypsies. He journeyed every summer, taking little money and sleeping outdoors, and returned to London in the winter to develop his films before publishing his first major work, Gypsies, in 1975.

Born in the eastern Czech town of Boskovice in 1938, Koudelka had been fascinated by photography from a young age, picking and selling strawberries in order to buy his first camera. He eventually moved to Prague to study engineering, where he joined a photography club.

The period after the invasion wasn't the first time he had turned his lens towards the travelling communities. While still working as an aeronautical engineer, Koudelka had quietly exhibited a series of 22 photographs of gypsies in 1967 (including the one featured above, taken in Czechoslovakia in 1963).

In a 2011 interview, the reclusive photographer, who now calls Paris home, recalled his ease at being among the Romani people during his travels. "Even the gypsies were sorry for me as they thought I was poorer than them," he said. "At night they were in their caravans and I was the guy who was sleeping outside beneath the sky."

'Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful' is published by Yale University Press, distributed for the Art Institute of Chicago, priced £35