THE ART OF PHOTOJOURNALISM Image of the month
Wenceslas Square, Prague, 17th November 1989, by Brian Harris
Former Fleet Street picture editor Alan Sparrow introduces this month’s image
Brian Harris worked as a staff photographer for the Independent newspaper, having joined at the paper’s launch in 1986 as its first staff photographer. He worked for the Independent for 14 years. In November 1989 the Berlin Wall was breached, and East and West Germans were able to mix in each other’s company for the first time in almost 30 years. Harris had been on assignment in Berlin recording the collapse of the Wall for the Indy when, as he describes it in his blog, the “rumblings of discontent” in Prague reached him.
He travelled south to witness the change of mood in Prague, and in time to witness the first of the student demonstrations on November 17th. The demonstration of about 15,000 students ended with the police attacking the demonstrators, who were chanting “We have bare hands” to show that they were not armed. Edward Lucas, a reporter for the Independent, was beaten and one of the students died in the police baton charge. The death is disputed, and according to author Victor Sebestyen it was an unsuccessful stunt by the Communist Party to change people’s attitudes.
In 1989 the attack on the students brought more protestors to the street and strengthened the anti-Communist feelings of the people of Prague. The nightly protests grew over five nights, and estimates suggest that around 500,000 people gathered beneath the statue of St Wenceslas in Wenceslas Square.
“On the 24th of November the Independent ran my picture across the front page” says Brian Harris. “To this day, it is the one picture that I am most proud of. It was a tribute to a famous Czechoslovakian photographer Josef Kouldelka”. Czech-born Kouldelka had witnessed another attempt by the authorities to manage people’s attitude when in 1968 it asked the population to gather at midday to show their support for the Communist Party. The people of Prague made their protest by not showing up, and the photograph showed an almost empty street with his arm and wristwatch in the foreground showing the time at twelve.
On the 24th of November 1989 the Communist Party leadership resigned and promised, just four days later, that they would relinquish power. On the 10th December,1989, Czechoslovakia appointed its first non-Communist government since 1948.