Central Europeans reflect on life before the fall of the Berlin Wall
Participants AboutPartners

Ivan Köhler

Everything was happening so fast that I didn’t have time to think that it was dangerous

Žilina, Slovak Republic, 2009
Slovak English

Ivan Köhler, Artist, photographer, founder Slovak Jazz Festival

In 1968, I was living and working as a photographer in the Czech Republic. I photographed the Bulgarian and East German soldiers entering the country, as a part of the Russian invasion, and then went to Prague where I documented the entire occupation. This was my first reportage.  

I documented absolutely everything, the attack on the radio station, the museums and the people in Wenceslas Square. In the area around the castle I met the soldiers face to face. They were just young boys, 18 - 19 years old. They had no idea why they were there. I had three cameras with me. Everything was happening so fast that I didn’t have time to think that it was dangerous. The soldiers took one of my cameras, opened it and held the film up to the sun to see what was there. They were like children just out of the villages. I photographed the burial service of Jan Palach (a student who burned himself to death in protest of the invasion). I did not know it, but the secret police were watching me.

Šaško, 60 x 100, 1976,  Ivan Köhler 

As a result of my activities during the invasion, I could no longer travel outside of Czechoslovakia. I was angry, but I did not let it ruin my life. I moved with my girlfriend to a small village outside of Žilina where we had an apothecary (she was a pharmacist) and I made art. This village was a meeting place for artists against the regime. We had jazz festivals. Because I could not travel I started to make photographs of rural villagers and their customs. I never wanted to do this before. Not being able to travel forced me to play in my own playground. 

In 1975 I was put into jail for two days. During this time the police searched my studio and took all of the photographs from 1968. The official reason was that it was not in the general interest of the people for these photographs to be spread throughout Czechoslovakia. I only have one photograph from that time. 

After 1989, I received from the Nation’s Memory Institute thousands of pages about my life that had been recorded by the secret police. I did not know that they were watching me so often. I am making a book from these documents. This is my diary of that time. There are things recorded in these pages that I had forgot about. You can imagine how many secret police, because of me, could have a job!  

Hlavná Odmena, 70 x 100, 1980,  Ivan Köhler

A list of the people who were cooperating with the regime was published in the newspapers. Some had been my friends. Those who were cooperating with the police they were whores. They could travel because they were cooperating with the police. What they were doing was a type of prostitution.

My life did not change that much after 1989. The biggest change was that I got a passport. I made the life that I wanted before the revolution and I am making the life that I want now. I am always positive.

This interview was in Slovak with the aid of a translator
Photo by Janeil Engelstad

Previous interview
Next interview
Ideology Suppression Revolution Freedom Hope Values Identity