Václav Havel

19 12 2011

Category; Politics

Two Political leaders have died within a few hours and the contrast between them could not be greater: Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il.

While I never quite met Havel, I got close to it and to adapt Cartier Bresson’s phrase about photography; it was a decisive moment.

It was 1989, a decisive year, when an Iron Curtain which until almost the moment it fell seemed impregnable, crumbled. I was a student, a politics student, passionate about the forces shaping my world. There’s a song that sums up that time, that feeling, perfectly:

Right here, right now,

There is no other place I’d rather be,

Right here, Right now,

Watching the world wake up from history.

Jesus Jones, Right Here Right Now – Watch the video here on youtube

Except I wasn’t right anywhere interesting things were happening. I was, so it seemed to me, wasting my time at university in a prosperous and peaceful British provincial city.

I had missed Tiananmen Square, Ceausescu had been despatched and the Berlin Wall had fallen without me. What interest could there be in student politics when the world was in upheaval? And then, towards the end of the year, the people of Czechoslovakia began to rise up, and I wasn’t going to miss it.

I persuaded a classmate, went to London, got visas and we took the first flight we could to Prague. There for several days, we joined a people shaking off decades of misrule. Our youth and foreignness gained us access we did not deserve. Although our attempts to address a crowd of 500,000 people as the representatives of the students of Great Britain were firmly rebuffed…

Still, we joined the press corps and had unfettered access. I remember a woman, petrified, rushing up to me and thrusting into my hand a sheaf of statements and photographs documenting the death and brutality meted out to demonstrators by the police, before merging back into the crowds. I had to tell the world, she said; it was my duty. I didn’t even have a student newspaper to tell.

One evening at the regular press conference of the opposition group Civic Forum at a theatre in Prague, I was determined to get some good photographs. I positioned myself between the stage and the back door and after the press conference Vaclav Havel came past, fast. I put my camera to my eye and took a photograph as he moved inches from me. And as the camera clicked, he looked at me. And I saw the reality, the enormity of what this playwright was doing.

With him was a student. Outside the back door was a family car, a Volkswagen Golf. No minders, no protection, no entourage. And the look he had in his eye said to me that harm was stalking him around every corner, behind every click. It was a question of when a Communist Party leadership that faced losing everything would strike, not if.

It was a sobering moment.

It was a moment that reminds me of the speech Martin Luther King gave the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, in 1968;

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.

And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land.

I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.

And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Martin Luther King jr. , April 3, 1968. Click here to see a video clip from the speech

Havel seemed to me, in that moment of eye contact, to be someone certain that harm would befall him and despite that, he was doing what he felt he had to do. As it turned out he emerged from the Velvet Revolution unscathed to lead Czechoslovakia, then the Czech Republic.

Henri Cartier Bresson described photography as capturing the “decisive moment”. I caught it, but not as a photograph; I had left the lens cap on the camera, I had seen something important to me, but on paper all I had was a black frame.

Some of the images I did capture on film (with a borrowed camera I didn’t know how to use which I had on the wrong settings…)

At a Civic Forum press conference; Havel is the second smudge from the right, the current President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, is the third smudge from the left…

The front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people

Out of focus and overexposed…Vaclav Havel gives a speech

The staff of the Ambassador Hotel in Wenceslas Square watch from an upper floor window as demonstrators pack the square below

all photographs ©



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