Living in Ostrava, an industrial city in the Czech Republic near its northern border with Poland, photographer Viktor Kolar has seen the rise and fall of communism, the division of one country into two, and the decline of his home city as an industrial powerhouse.
Kolar’s collection of photographs of Ostrava dates back to the mid-60s and continues to grow. He said he personally changed, the city changed, the country changed, but his photography style remains the same.
“My chief aim was not to show an ill-functioning communist political system, but above all, the human condition existing there,” he said.
Kolar captures personal and aesthetic moments with everyday people.
“I was simply shooting the material solely for myself or to say more clearly for future exhibitions or books when the communist regime is over, which actually happened with my work.”
The national politics affected him personally. In 1968 a movement known as the Prague Spring arose in an effort to democratize the country. The Soviet Union responded by sending in thousands of troops to occupy Czechoslovakia. Kolar left and lived in exile in Canada until the President granted him amnesty in 1973.
After his return, he was on probation and forced to work in a steel mill as part of his “normalization” process. Secret police warned him against photographing problematic subjects, yet he said some of his images from that period of time are his “best and lasting.”
“During that time - not easy period at all - I could do my photography little by little, step by step, sometimes in a manner of an ‘invisible person,’” he said. “It was done also out of necessity to obtain a dose of beauty, human warmth and the magic from contacting everyday reality with my camera.”
Kolar said everyday people tended to follow the rules and keep a low profile, therefore they didn’t reflect the national politics.
Czechoslovakia peacefully became a democratic country during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, and soon after it split into Czech Republic and Slovakia. Around that time the city of Ostrava fell apart. Coal mines and steel factories in Ostrava shut down, leaving many in the city without work.
Today, Ostrava is driven by a consumerist mentality, Kolar said, though not everyone can keep up with the Joneses.
“Life here is not anymore simple, secure and just for everybody,” he said.
He still photographs his home city.
“Photography deep down can record beauty, life-harshness, and lasting hope in life.”
“When you do it in a long run you may understand life in depth and also to know where the truth is hiding,” he said.
“And so the pictures wait for my camera.”
- Lauren Russell, CNN