Without fuss or media coverage, a photo exhibition opened before the central entry to the National Palace of Culture, Sofia on 4 October 2018 featuring the events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia or, to be more precise, what happened on 21 August, when photographer Ladislav Bielik captured the memorable picture of Emil Gallo, ripping open his shirt and thrusting out his bare chest towards a Soviet tank gun barrel in Bratislava 50 years ago.
Apart from black-and-white photographs on enormous panels, short life stories of these two men were exhibited revealing the tough life they have faced. Thus printed, the archival pictures evoke a special documentary sensation. The very white-and-black material of that time inevitably becomes quite grainy, when magnified, which has now become a common imitative practice in the process of digitising, but here it is rather inherent in this archival representation. The photographs feature the violent reality of those days: soldiers, crowds, tanks and thus these grainy black-and-white images are hearkening back somewhat naturally to that age.
The central picture of the man challenging the tank is deemed to be emblematic of the Prague Spring and was published on more than one occasion at the time. Nowadays, it inevitably evokes an analogy with the image of a student facing the line of tanks in the 1989 Tiananmen Square two decades later, on 4 June. Whether or not and how much these two pictures were related, is anybody’s guess. To me, these suggested the idea of universal human struggles that cyclically occur in the history of mankind. Both display desperate extremity as a result of despairing of the system. Regardless of races, time or place. Sun Tzu in his On The Art of War says not to press a desperate foe too hard, leaving an outlet free to prevent his fighting with the courage of despair. That is what these emblematic photographs demonstrate: the courage of despair.
Discredited as it may be nowadays, photography, when unvarnished, still remains a universal record of the time. And even just few such images harking back to the past, can prompt us to think of what has changed, where we stand and where we are going. It is especially true for us, who are part of the system and the transition. We are now asking ourselves with ever-increasing frequency where from and where to, if at all, did we transit. I’d hear, increasingly often these days, predictions of such events in the near future. What I ask myself is whether or not we have any idea, not even an ideology, but just an idea to fight for. Do we have a social environment where it could come to fruition? What we increasingly witness nowadays are the fruits of the cult of individualism that led to a society of lonely individuals, where it’s every man for himself. And even with an idea in place, would there be anyone, who would now readily face a tank gun barrel?