Czech Republic | Libuše Jarcovjáková

“I was always very adventurous”

Words: Morgan Childs | Images: Björn Steinz

Libuše Jarcovjáková, 68, is one of the most renowned contemporary Czech photographers. She documented nightlife, minority groups and marginalised LGBTQ+ people in 70s and 80s Prague, at a time where freedom was sparse. Her work is an authentic record of a photographer who experienced everything she shot.

Tell us a little bit about your upbringing, your childhood and your family.

It was pretty wild when I was young. I was born in 1952, a difficult time politically-speaking. Both of my parents were painters and when I was born, my father was out for two years on military service, so my mother was alone with me, getting by. They were both really impractical. [They were painters.] I think that, on one hand, my childhood was really inspiring because I smelled the paints, the turpentine, the colours, and when [my parents] were in a good mood, they spoke about art. But on the other hand, they were really poor.

I started graphic arts school at age 15 and I had four years of photography [courses] there. In the meantime, the Russians invaded, which changed the situation a lot because before, I had been this active young person who studied English and German and was looking forward to travelling the world. When the Russians arrived, I immediately felt it was the end. At school, there was a huge shift. All of the interesting people emigrated, they were gone. The people arriving were all really politically correct. It was the start of a grey, grey time.

Somehow, my father got into a conflict with someone whose wife was a very important person in the Prague Communist party. It caused rage, really personal rage. My parents weren’t dissidents, but when I tried getting into the FAMU [the Film and TV school of the Academy of Performing Arts], I couldn’t.

So I took a very naive decision and thought to myself, “Let’s go to the factory, be a worker and make my own political profile.” I spent almost four years working in a print factory, and it was tough. The night shift went from 10 pm until 6 am. We’d go to breakfast, drink until the evening and then get back to work. I absolutely dissolved in that world, I became a part of it. I forgot everything about my previous life. I was living in a basement with a severe alcoholic, and I was almost an alcoholic myself because I felt I had no future, no perspective. I took very little photographs at that time. Then, around the age of 24, I started making my way out and after my fourth attempt, I was finally accepted at the FAMU. I spent several years there, which were difficult for me as I was so out of practice and unused to the discipline. I couldn’t connect with my peers because I was older, I had lived another life.

It sounds like you’re describing two worlds. There’s one that’s really difficult, where you’re surrounded by alcoholics, and you’re drawn into alcoholic tendencies, but the other world also seems quite dark, challenging and lonely.

Yeah, but you know, it was like a spiral. I was living in a society that was at a low point, and then I went to another place where people were somehow more sophisticated, and I had a new society. And then to another and even better one. I started taking pictures of Roma people, and somehow realised around the age of 25 that I was floating through these different societies. I was somehow very empathetic [to the Roma], I was accepted, I spent a lot of time with them, and then I closed the door and opened another one. In the mornings, I taught Vietnamese people and took photos with them. In the afternoon, I spent time with Gypsies. At night, I would go to T-Club, a gay club in Prague, which I felt I was a part of. And in all those moments, I was taking photos.

I wasn’t able to deal with sex properly, I wasn’t able to say “no”.

I wanted to ask you what it was that drew you to the Roma community, specifically, and also the Vietnamese community. But from what you’ve said, your interest sounds more anthropological than anything.

It’s very closely connected with life here in Czechoslovakia during the socialist, communist regime. I was always very adventurous. Nowadays, I travel all around the world. One day, I’ll be in the Amazon Forest and the next day I’ll be somewhere else, just because of this personality trait. But back then, that was impossible. We were in a cage. The problem was how to find a space in which I could be adventurous.

I love being in other cultures, other worlds, being with people who have other values, see money differently, have a different idea of what’s honest and what’s not. It was all very intuitive, instinctive because I wasn’t necessarily educated that way, and I had no one to share it with. I was an amateur, in an anthropological sense. But this is empathy. I would be there and I was soon forgotten as a visitor with a camera because people weren’t distured by my presence.

  • Gender pay gap: 20,1 % (Eurostat, 2020)
  • Political representation in Parliament: 23% (World Bank, 2019)

With Vietnamese people, I was a teacher. I was in the thick of it. I was the one who would teach them Czech during a three-month course without any prior vocabulary, without any grammar books, without any textbooks, without any methodology. As teachers, we were the bridge between them and Czech society. They tried seeking answers in broken Czech. They had a lot of questions about why Czechs were behaving like they were a lower-class society. So what I did [as a teacher] was instinctive, intuitive and authentic.

I wonder if your relationship with these communities thrived in part because you are an outsider. You’re a queer woman—

I wasn’t at the time. It was a little complicated because I was completely heterosexual until age 33. I had never thought of women in that way, really. I got pregnant three times and it was really hard because I was unmarried, had no children and was refused contraception because your obligation [under socialism] is to have kids. So I had three abortions, which was really difficult mentally. I started gaining weight because I wasn’t able to deal with sex properly, I wasn’t able to say “no”. I lived a wild sexual life and somehow, I ended up having my first experience with a woman. Suddenly, I had found the solution to getting pregnant. It was perfect. It’s difficult to explain to real lesbians, they always think that I’m pretending.

I was bisexual for a long time, and then I ended up in this relationship with Magda. But I’m not an active lesbian and I’m not ready to speak about this issue because how I got here was very [different]. It was through the relationship and psychological closeness and so on. What’s important to speak about is that we felt we were equals our whole lives. Women in socialism are equal [to men] and I was always absolutely free. I travelled where I wanted, I had a very free marriage and I was the dominant one. But when I look back, I see a lot of inappropriate things.

In the marriage?

Not in the marriage, but more generally. Like masculine domination. But you know, it wasn’t as important as it is now. It’s hard to explain but, for example, the feminine surname suffix “ova”. My grandma has her own name, she kept her maiden name. My mother kept her maiden name. So I did as well. It was tradition in our family. It’s a detail, but it somehow represents how we felt.

“I’ve lived a whole, independent life without feeling I was neglected or ostracised.”

Would you use the word “feminist” to describe yourself?

Not consciously. I never thought to myself, “I don’t have the same rights as men do.” But in the end, I do see how in the photographic world, it’s always the men who have more advantages. By not being conscious of it, I didn’t feel neglected somehow. Can you imagine? I think that’s quite specific to socialist countries, that attitude, because we really believed we were equal. Deep inside, I’ve never doubted that I am. I’ve lived a whole, independent life without feeling I was neglected or ostracised.

It seems that so much of your work is feminist.

But not on a conscious level.

And what about activism, have you ever thought of yourself as an activist?

No. Maybe it’s a pity, maybe I could do important work, because my voice was always strong somehow. But I wasn’t ready to work with an ideology. Maybe it’s hard for you to speak about feminism as an ideology, but for me that’s kind of what it was.

Maybe it’s also a language problem. The [Czech] word “feminismus” carries so much weight, and it’s not so heavy in the English language.

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Do you feel European? Do you identify with Europe?

Absolutely, and this is a very good question. When I came to Berlin and started speaking broken German, I had a really strong accent, I remember being asked where I was from. The accepted answer was “from Eastern Europe.” I hated this term, because what is Eastern Europe? We’re Middle Europe, Central Europe. So my answer was always, “I am from Europe.” I am from Europe. That’s it. So I really felt like a European, and I love Europe, and I hope the European Union survives somehow, and I feel we are much closer than we think.

Last year, I was in Warsaw several times for my book and I saw how close we are with the Polish. And I was in Bratislava. I feel it’s useless being in some conflicts, it’s just a waste of energy and a waste of… I hate nationalism.

Are you optimistic?

I try to be. I try because, you know, living in fear is not good for the body. So, I hope. But sometimes I’m too optimistic. I hope Trump will not be elected again, I hope Babiš will end up I don’t know where one day. It was my hope with Berlusconi, and in the end it happened. So I think people are not as stupid as they seem. Hope, hope.

What’s one law that you’d like to see implemented on a European level that would improve women’s rights?

Having at least equal pay, being paid the same as men. It should be a rule, and it isn’t.

Did you experience that firsthand?

I don’t know. But most probably yes. Definitely yes. I didn’t know about it so I didn’t ask. And if I had asked, I probably would have gotten no answer because [salaries] were kept secret. But it definitely was a problem.

Your popularity is still increasing, and I don’t think it’s just because more and more people are seeing your work. Is there something in the zeitgeist?

First, my visual language is very up-to-date. It’s really contemporary. Secondly, I’m sure this [is because of its] authenticity and honesty, which is part of me because I have no other option. And a lot of parts somehow correspond with many people of different generations, different genders. I think to the young generation, I’m a kind of an icon. It could just be temporary, you know how it goes. But it’s worked that way for three or four years, more and more.

Anyway, I know I’m at the beginning again. I’m now scanning the rest of my archive and there’s a lot of interesting stuff, thank god. But I don’t just want to live from the past. So my idea is just to stay alive. That is the first condition, which is maybe the worst and the hardest thing. And then just to be flexible, to flow, somehow to be present.