Jan Sibik has long been considered one of the Czech Republic's most important photojournalists, a photographer who has worked in some of the world's most tortured areas. Futility, pain, loss and injustice all come to the forefront in Sibik's work - whether his focus is on the human actors and victims in war-torn parts of Africa or the former Soviet bloc. The subject matter - at times - is shocking. As Prague's Lord Mayor Pavel Bem said at the opening of Sibik's newest exhibit "Stories" at the Old Town Hall this week, the photographer allows us to witness stories from hell, though sometimes with a glimmer of heaven.
"Of course when I am taking photographs I want to make pictures that capture something more: there should be a certain 'universality', so that in the end the subjects could be anyplace, anywhere. You can't achieve that by only staying some place for a few hours - you have to stay for days or weeks in order to get to the heart of the problem. Then, locals even help you, others forget you're actually photographing. I think it makes a difference if you're somewhere two week or fours hours - and it makes a difference in the work."
The photojournalist's assignments for Reflex magazine as well as personal projects have seen him take more than 200 foreign trips to places most of us would never consider visiting. Chechnya during the First War. Sierra Leone in the throes of civil strife. Liberia. People - the living and the dead - are most often are his main subject, and his camera continually captures the final disintegration of civil order or any kind of normalcy. He spent more than a week following Romanian children living in the sewers; a year recording the plight of AIDS victims dying in isolation in Odessa: it can't get any worse than this. And yet, in photographing "survivors" or "victims" Sibik captures humanity - often downtrodden and almost defeated - in a way that is emotional and sincere. The photographer again:
"My job is to persuade people that it's important to know what is going on in places like Liberia. I have the skills and the knowledge to find contacts in such areas and know how to deal with such situations, so I have to go. It's true that some horrible things were going on in Liberia and they are reflected in the prints. But as a photographer, I never try to simply make a record of a situation. When you are dealing with two armies of youths, when killing is without compunction - just so someone can steal something from somebody else - it's captured in the photographs. There's no way of avoiding it."
More and more Sibik says he has begun communicating with his audience, talking about some of the stories behind the photographs. While he says that the images should still speak primarily "for themselves", he does admit that discussing some of the stories helps some viewers to relate.
"I realised that if I began telling people some of the stories related to the pictures that they could gain a better understanding. And each of these pictures does have a story: sometimes dramatic, sometimes drastic, that needs to be 'told'. Some people think that there is too much war photography but [I disagree]. At competitions like World Press Photo or Czech Press Photo there are plenty of other categories from landscape to sport, where you can focus on other things. If you are taking pictures in troubled regions, of course people will react strongly - either positively or negatively. It's obvious that certain images will evoke stronger feelings than any landscape."
At times, strong emotions have roused even the photographer himself to cross the line between his field and becoming something of an activist: his experience in Ukraine, where he got to know AIDS sufferers, was such a case. Back in Prague, he organised what eventually became a series of exhibitions to raise money to help AIDS sufferers. The exhibition was titled "I still want to live".
"I planned and organised the whole thing myself with the help of a single secretary. Luckily, Reflex - where I work - was supportive, but it was still all up to me. It all began with an exhibition here in the centre of town. I got in touch with other towns through the magazine and they began to call, so I made copies of the prints so that some of the shows could go up at the same time. In the end there were almost seventy exhibitions."
Then it was a question of still raising enough funds:
"It wasn't easy to raise money and a lot of people tended to blame the victims themselves for their fate. They had been prostitutes and drug users. That's true. But, I spent a long time working on this and [managed to raise some donations]. But, what do you do with a million crowns? I was worried the money would never get there. Instead, I invested in a dentist's surgery: the people I met who were HIV positive had complained that no one would treat them. So, I bought a surgery, had it transported there, and set up.
Normally I don't think it's up to photographers to get involved on such a level: a photographer is meant to take pictures. But, these were people I had gotten to know and some of them had become friends. I wanted to do something more for them than just the report for the magazine. But, I'm not thinking of doing anything similar now. Now, I just want to photograph."
Back in the Old Town Hall the exhibition "Stories" draws a great many visitors - some of them Sibik's colleagues from the past. I spoke with Zdenek Cech, who used to work with Sibik at Reflex:
"Mr Sibik is a special man! The Czechs aren't very brave as a people. But, Mr Sibik is an exception. He can risk and do anything to get great shots. Many times he was in very great danger. I can remember many wars with the camera of Mr Sibik."
It strikes me that Jan Sibik displays a remarkable modesty for someone who has seen so much. He readily admits that "Stories" represents something of a milestone, by focussing on his twelve most important photo series over the last five years. Along with areas already mentioned, there are scenes from the Middle East, Afghanistan and India and more.
The show is highly recommended and continues at the Old Town Hall until the 6th of July. If you don't speak Czech but understand English, it's worth noting that the text translations are excellent. You can also view much of Jan Sibik's work at his website: www.sibik.cz and a monograph of the show is also available.