Photojournalist Antonin Kratochvil left Czechoslovakia in 1967, when he was only 19, because he didn't want to whisper. His parents had been incarcerated and damned as "class enemies" by the Communists, so they lowered their voices when they talked about anything important and warned their son that the walls had ears.
Nine years later--armed with an American passport that allowed him to travel freely--Kratochvil returned to Eastern Europe with a camera and began to shout. Now based in New York, he is being heard in black-and-white photographs portraying stark facts of life off the tourist circuit. Images shot from 1976 to 1996 are featured in an exhibition at the Gallery of Contemporary Photography at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica (to April 18) and in a book, "Broken Dream: 20 Years of War in Eastern Europe."
Kratochvil has photographed the old and dispirited, the young and reckless, farmers who try to grow crops on polluted land and religious devotees who carry on forbidden traditions. His pictures include images of empty food markets in Poland, Gypsies and street gangs in Romania, an Albanian gulag and a shell-shocked Bosnian refugee in Croatia.
One particularly striking picture, "Shelter, Poland 1976," features a woman shrouded in black and two smaller, lumpish figures in a bleak courtyard with dirty dishes stacked on a bare table. "Fallen Iron Curtain, Czechoslovakia 1989" appears to depict an ordinary, unlovely landscape, but the title reveals that a roll of barbed wire off to one side formerly served as a fearsome barricade.
Recalling his youth in Prague, Kratochvil said he had a remarkably carefree childhood, but his parents were traumatized by Communist oppression. "My father was a photographer," Kratochvil said. "He worked in a studio, a kind of a cooperative, but he owned a company and employed people, so my parents were looked upon as exploiters of the masses.
"They spent five years in internal exile. They lost their rights as citizens, so they couldn't leave. The whole country was surrounded by barbed wire. My father was forced to work in a factory, where he was humiliated."
Seeking a better way of life after he finished school, Kratochvil snuck across the border into Austria, but got stuck in a refugee camp for almost a year. "Sweden finally took me," he said. "They got some old people and young people without professions. Being a refugee was like being in a meat market. Countries like the U.S. or Canada would take educated people, engineers or doctors, but they really didn't want to have anything to do with the rest of us."
In 1970, after two years of "bumming around and being stateless," he made his way to Holland. "I got political asylum there," he said. "The mood was a little bit better because it was after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, so the West was a little bit more kind to people like me."
Then he got his "big break": a scholarship to study at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam. "It changed my life," he said.
Kratochvil had no prior training in photography, but he had helped his father in his studio and absorbed a lot of information. "What I had learned was subconscious," he said. "But when I went to school, it came so naturally. I fell into it right away."
He completed his studies in two and a half years, married an American he had met in Holland and moved to Los Angeles in 1972. After making the rounds with his portfolio, he landed a job at the Los Angeles Times, as a photographer for the newspaper's West and Home magazines. He resigned after a year, opting to work as a freelancer.
In 1976, the year he became an American citizen, Kratochvil moved to New York to work for Vogue, but he soon tired of fashion photography. His marriage had ended in divorce and he was interested in socially conscious imagery, he went on the road.
"The passport gave me carte blanche to go back to Eastern Europe," he said. "Before that, I had the passport of a political refugee, so I couldn't go back. I would have been arrested."
He has worked abroad on assignments for the New York Times Magazine, Time and Newsweek, among many other publications. But his travel to Eastern Europe was a personal journey. "I wanted to get in touch with myself," he said. Returning to his native country was part of his mission, but he also explored widely. "I was discovering different regions of Eastern Europe that I hadn't been allowed to visit while living in Czechoslovakia," he said. "It was the very exciting."
In Polish villages he was stunned to find religious practices he had never heard of, much less witnessed. "I had never seen such devotion in Czechoslovakia because they got rid of the clergy completely," he said. "Old people carried on traditions, but if young people went to church, they would be put on a black list."
Taking pains to dress as a Pole and learn the language so that he could blend in with the local populace, he photographed an annual Procession of the Virgins, in which old women and young girls in white veils make a pilgrimage through the countryside carrying pictures of Jesus. Other pictures from Poland depict a chapel with a wall full of human skulls and a group of men in suits doing penance by rolling up their trousers and walking on their knees through a forest.
Sensitive situations required him to photograph on the sly, but a pervasive climate of fear also made it difficult to take pictures of seemingly ordinary situations. "I was arrested many times. The police could set you up, take your passport and do almost anything to you, depending on how far they wanted to go," he said.
Kratochvil was deported from the Soviet Union for photographing scenes from daily life that he considered innocuous. But he generally stayed out of trouble by using "tricks of the trade," such as handing over blank film to the police or "playing stupid, as if I was a tourist," he said.
Most of his subjects didn't object to having their pictures taken. However, some Gypsies he photographed in Romania were beaten because they were forbidden to have contact with foreigners. "In Albania, it was the same thing. You were suspect. There was constant harassment, but it was worth it," he said.
"Nobody cared about this work until late '80s," Kratochvil said of his Eastern European pictures. "People didn't understand it here in the United States, and they didn't really care. I was just shooting for myself because I felt compelled to do it."
But attitudes changed after the Velvet Revolution. "Then I was sent back there a lot by the New York Times," he said. Now people are interested because it's over. But when other photographers go there to photograph, it's not there anymore.
"I was lucky. By some fluke I was part of history. My need to do it was subconscious; it was not premeditated. Actually I never really thought I would be able to go home and feel free. But it's been 30 years now, and it's very hard for me to go back because the place I knew doesn't exist anymore and I'm a different person. You always dream about going back, and then you can, and you go, and you find it's all in your memories," he said.
Kratochvil photographed the Velvet Revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the legacy of communism, including a Lenin statue lying in a dump in Estonia, but while witnessing profound changes he also discovered nostalgia for the old order.
"There was no liberty or freedom as we conceive it here, but there was security because you always had a job and everything was subsidized," he said. "Nobody had too much, or if they did, they hid it well. There was no class structure as we know it. Education and medical care were free, but people got lazy. Now that the economy has collapsed, there are problems with the homeless and street children. They don't know how to handle these problems."
During the past few years Kratochvil has moved on to other projects, and his efforts have been rewarded with several prizes, including the 1994 Leica Medal of Excellence for outstanding achievement in documentary photography. This past January, he won an Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for his photographs of street children in Mongolia.
Now, while enjoying the success of his book at signings and exhibitions in Washington, Prague, London and Los Angeles, he's anticipating his next assignment.
"I'm going to Kazakhstan in May, to work on a project about politics and oil for the Museum of Natural History in New York," he said. "They are going to publish the pictures in a magazine and perhaps they will do an exhibition as well. I'm really looking forward to the trip to Kazakhstan because it's an incredibly politically volatile region. It's an amazing story."
"BROKEN DREAM," Gallery of Contemporary Photography, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Dates: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Ends April 18. Phone: (310) 264-8440.