Note: This is one of my assignments for my Travel Writing course here in Prague, where I am currently studying abroad. We were prompted to write about a profile about a Czech citizen, and I chose to write about the photographer Karel Cudlin.
This photo does not belong to me. It is the property of Karel Cudlin. All Rights Reserved.
Music streams through the air as an elderly woman sings in the distance about life. “It’s some kind of blues,” reminisces an aged man wearing a charcoal gray suit jacket as he toys with a small Samsung digital camera that sits on the table. His warm, tan face is inviting and brightly lit as he looks into the distance as if the scene he paints is occurring in front of him as he speaks. This is not the lower half of Žižkov travelers are warned about and locals avoid. This is the lower half of Žižkov that Karel Cudlín remembers.
Perched in a cafe located near Prague’s Old Town Square, the Prague-based photographer flashed nostalgic smirks whenever he brought up his time taking pictures of and befriending members of the Žižkov Roma community. Like Harlem in New York City, the lower half of Žižkov is a pointedly avoided area by tourists and locals alike. For locals especially, disdain for this economically downtrodden and isolated area stems from a history of racist and untrusting attitudes towards the Roma community.
Cudlín, who has won countless awards for his craft including 17 prizes from Czech Press Photo, has built a career for himself that has been heavily highlighted by a passion to explore the overlooked and sometimes shamed communities of the world. He has travelled to Poland, Israel, and the Ukraine and has photographed everyone from veterans to actors. These projects come from a place of passion and curiosity. Covering the Roma people accidentally became the photographer’s first project, but it built the framework for a shining career to come.
Cudlín’s experience with members of this specific gypsy community had been positive and genuine. “People [do not] have two faces there,” he remarks. “Some people have their private face and their public face. [The gypsies] didn’t play the social too much.”
Born in 1960 to a doctor (his father) and a typist (his mother) in the upper half of Žižkov, a distinct class barrier separated Cudlín from the Roma community for most of his early life. While in gymnasium, a younger Karel became attached to more artistic interests. He explored painting and poetry but became enamored with photography when given his father’s old Exakta camera at the age of 14. Exploration of the medium ensued as he began to exchange old photography magazines with friends and his uncle, who had been an amateur in the field. Inspired by American photographers like Roy DeCarava, Cudlín realized his specialty — social documentary photography.
In 1977, at the age of 17, Cudlín had been able to practice his new interest. Walking through Žižkov, the open, inviting nature of the gypsies influenced the photographer in a time where Communism had forced the Czech population to become “more closed,” as he explains it. His interests were piqued not only from the warm welcome he had received but also from the wildly different family dynamic he observed there. “It is a different kind of family life,” he states with a spec of awe. “You see these homes with as many as 15 people [whereas] Czech families are very small.” An interest in roots and family has inspired later work by Cudlín, including a current exploration of the revived Jewish community in Prague.
For Cudlín, sharing any situation he sees, whether nice or depressing, plays an important role in his work. His focus is on the aesthetic yet he captures situations that border the territory of photojournalistic. With some careful internal deliberation, Cudlín concluded that “[the] most important [aspect] is what happens in your mind, like music. The most important [part] is what happens with you.” Describing his profession evoked the same careful choice of words; “intermediator” is his final choice and appears to be an accurate portrayal of a career spent giving the majority a chance to see the way the minority lives.
Capturing the gypsies in particular served as an active protest by Cudlín to the negative and often sensationalized press they regularly receive. “People feel that people in worse social conditions have no dignity,” he muses sadly. “I wanted to show more positive aspects.”
The positive attributes of the Roma community were, in fact, difficult to ignore. Inherently joyful, the gypsies appear playful and unaffected by popular misconceptions in the black-and-white portraits shot by Cudlín during the late 1970’s. A musical vibrance that each image captures is rooted in the photographer’s own early inspiration by American rock ‘n’ roll music from the 1950’s, beatnik literature, and films from the French New Wave genre, as well as American classics like Citizen Kane. Each of these artistic movements represented rebellion in their respective fields, and even Cudlín’s career choice had been a small act of protest against his parents’ wishes for him to become a doctor. Thirsting for difference and desiring to challenge what was expected of him, it is no wonder that the photographer was attracted to focusing on society’s outcasts.
The Roma community encapsulates the image of the outcast in every way. The warnings about them are written everywhere. Travel guides and forums for foreign visitors share the same note of advice: beware of the gypsies in Žižkov. They have been shamed and segregated in a horrendously undignified way.
People thought Cudlín had been temporarily crazed for stepping over these boundaries. “They are afraid [of the Roma community],” he reinforces. “They don’t have experience. People who have a problem have never met them.” This blatant ignorance and the public’s desire for drama and negative news has pushed the stereotypes of the thieving, lying gypsy community. Cudlín relates this trend to how “a million airplanes fly perfectly every day, [yet] when one crashes, it makes the headlines.”
Over the years, the photographer has watched the situation of the community worsen. Huge social problems have caused the area to deteriorate even further and close itself off from the majority of Prague almost entirely. A large number of the area’s inhabitants are unemployed, which makes money an obvious issue. Education has become a growing problem with many of the families exclusively speaking the community’s own language at home and not having access to proper schooling. The government has assisted families financially, but it is still not enough.
Cudlín’s concern comes not only from his close ties with the area but also his background in social work, which he had studied for several years after secondary school. He believes a push towards affirmative action, like in the United States, should be instated in order to better their current situation. Seemingly unlike the majority of Prague, he had very little preconceived notions about the community. While his father had treated many gypsy patients as a doctor in the area, his family never carried any particular opinions about the people who lived just a few tram stops away.
The colors of the Roma community are what pulled Cudlín in and kept him invested. The pictures may be in black-and-white, but the scenes are incredibly alive and vivacious. It was a nice alternative for the photographer who felt that Prague had lacked color until Communism fell. Over the past 20 years, however, the city has begun to develop its own atmosphere.
Juxtaposed next to the rest of the city’s growing vibrance, the gypsies of Žižkov have begun to lose the personal flare that had been forcibly stifled by the rest of the locals. Cudlín has made countless visits over the years since his chance encounter with this unique area. The children have grown up, and the families still greet him warmly. While the colors begin to fade, Cudlín offers portraits of a lively collective spirit that has maintained the ability to never be crushed.