Documentarian Jindřich Štreit – Prisoner and Photographer of Conscience
Jindřich Štreit (*1946) is a world-renowned socio-documentary photographer and pedagogue who entered the annals of 1970s Czech photography with his unique photographic collection about Moravian villages. This Village is the World photographic cycle began in 1978 and continues to the present day. Štreit was initially a rural teacher, local chronicler, and subsequently state farm dispatcher hand-in-hand with villagers. He became part of their lives and was intrigued by intricacies of village life - the distillation of life’s joys and tragedies into one local microcosm. His photos sought to portray that which is most elemental about the human condition, by observing and revealing individual and life situations of families, children, partners and colleagues. But Štreit’s life was tragically impacted by politics. In 1982, designer Alena Kučerová (*1935) prepared Meeting, an unofficial exhibition of contemporary Czech art in Prague. Štreit had diligently prepared:
‘I wanted to show the Soviet photographs I had prepared for a nationwide exhibition in Olomouc. I was unaware there was anything wrong with accepting the invitation and exhibiting. But the resulting storm was brutal - the police confiscated my photos and closed the event. The second day after my arrival in Sovince they searched the house for thirteen hours. I was then carted off in handcuffs to Ruzyne remand prison.’
He was eventually sentenced to four months imprisonment for defaming the President and the Socialist Republic. Upon release Štreit was forbidden from photography, so he worked at an agricultural cooperative where the understanding and generosity of colleagues allowed him to purchase a camera and continue the Village cycle. These critical images of the devastated socialist countryside – an emotional testimony of the human condition – can certainly be said to have revealed the reality of Czech villages to world photography. And just like the similarly famous photographer Josef Sudek, he could glance from his studio and picture the photographs that would attract global audiences. Štreit’s photographs show that major topics can be explored close to home – and that the photographer’s role and abode is not decisive, but rather that the resulting photographs while local are widely comprehensible to audiences around the world.
Nevertheless, Štreit also got involved in the unofficial (underground) art and culture scene during the so-called Soviet era. In 1978-89 – during political oppression and communist censorship – he set up a small private gallery at his rural house in Sovince that promoted experimental and conceptual art from artists who were forbidden from officially exhibiting for political reasons. Each such event took place under state police supervision, and was perceived as a socio-political confrontation with the totalitarian regime. The extensive and systematic cultural activities organised by Štreit in Sovince are comparable with the Polish galleries Crooked Wheel in Warsaw and Krzysztofory Gallery in Krakow (1950s-60s), György Galántaie studio at Balatonboglár Cathedral in Hungary (1970s), and the Slovak conceptualist and performer Alex Mlynárčik (1980s).