Bleak Beauty, The Photos of Antonin Kratochvil

By Lindsey McCormack
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The acclaimed photojournalist Antonin Kratochvil delivered an afternoon talk at Harvard University recently, as black and white images of war zones and industrial wastelands flashed across a screen behind him. Few photographers alive have created such stunning chronicles of the global scope of war and environmental destruction. Yet what makes these photos uniquely beautiful is their direct, unadorned empathy for ordinary people trapped in horrific situations.

Born in 1947, Kratochvil came of age during the height of Soviet repression in his native Czechoslovakia. After fleeing the country in 1967, he spent much of his early twenties in refugee camps. He eventually arrived in the US, becoming a citizen in 1976. The experience of being a refugee, of being forced to wait while the effects of war and occupation play out on one’s family, inflects the mood of Kratochvil’s photographs even today.

For one of his first undertakings as a photojournalist, Kratochvil returned to the home he says he missed and hated at the same time. His many trips to the former Soviet bloc culminated in the 1997 book “Broken Dream: 20 Years of War in Eastern Europe.” A more recent project captures the grotesque inequalities of today’s Russia, a society that strikes him as “a return to Rasputin times.”

After more than three decades, Kratochvil can match any seasoned reporter for continents explored and crises documented. Yet for all their geographic range, the photographs in his slide show evoked above all an intense sense of claustrophobia. Venezuelan prison inmates, Albanian refugees who have settled in boxcars, and African-American denizens of Louisiana’s “cancer alley” all struggle to survive in shrunken, polluted landscapes of man’s own making. Even an apartment block on the outskirts of Prague carries a menacing sense of enclosure.

Despite, or perhaps because of his immersion in humanity’s bleaker moments, Kratochvil seems to cherish the good things in life. In the middle of his slide show appeared the image of a nude pregnant woman, glimpsed in profile through wavy glass. The photographer laughed, explaining that his wife had threatened to divorce him if at least one picture of her weren’t included in his first collection. “And now I can enjoy the product!” he exclaimed, indicating the affable, floppy-haired teenager who was sitting off to one side, seeming only mildly embarrassed at being pointed out in this way by his dad.

Kratochvil’s warmth comes through even in his starkest photographs, which point not to nihilism but to the importance of personal concern for change. It is telling that many of his projects have developed in conjunction with NGO’s that work with populations in crisis: his series on Guatemalan street children with the Central American Casa Alianza, for instance, or the 2005 exhibition on the “Forgotten War” in the Congo for Doctors Without Borders.

In his 2005 book “Vanishing,” Kratochvil continues to lean into the themes of poverty and environmental ruin. His intent as a photographer, Kratochvil emphasized as he wrapped up his talk, has been to document, not to offer answers or hints of a sunnier future. But the act of documentation is itself a rejection of passive despair, the beginning of a conversation and an invitation to solidarity.

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