Street Photographer and Biographer

Deep conversations with reserved people

By Marilyn La Jeunesse

An elderly woman gazes into the lens of the camera, a thin-lipped smile on her face. Her furry purple hat and patterned scarf are bursts of color amongst a dark, blurred background. Silver spectacles decorate a pair of eyes that have seen some of the worst events in European history unfold.

The photo’s caption tells her story.

The woman, whose identity remains anonymous, was the daughter of prosperous farmers in South Moravia during the communist regime. Her family refused to join the cooperative. “We were black sheep. We irritated the comrades continuously,” she recalls. “Everyone made it clear to me that I was weird and different, the enemy of the state.” Her story ends with this statement: “No matter how many books you read, how many stories you hear—the ones who didn’t experience it, cannot imagine it.”

Tomas Princ, the woman’s confidant, runs the largest and most active Humans of Prague blog on the Internet, with more than 50,000 likes.

"I was in Germany on forced labor During the war. We Were in charge of cleaning the rubble after the air strikes. It was interesting Knew That They always When the air strikes Would take place. Would They always bring us to the place in advance." "There was nothing left for the people. They begged us to take in pajamas Their stuff away from the ruins. One, That was in Mannheim; they told us That there is a tapping sound from the cellar of one of the houses collapsed. So we took away the rubble and got deep. There Were no living people, nothing Remained of Them. Just sand. And in the middle of all this horror, there lay the pristine, opened Bible. I'm not a religious man but when i saw it, I got goose bumps."

“I was in Germany on forced labor during the war. We were in charge of cleaning the rubble after the air strikes. It was interesting, they always knew when the air strikes Would take place. They would always bring us to a safe place in advance.” Photo courtesy of Humans of Prague.

The idea of capturing the lives and stories of locals through his camera has become the basis for Princ’s career. In 2011, he photographed people across South Korea, documenting his subjects in their daily lives. In 2012, he worked on a documentary series involving Kenyan locals. And, in 2013, he began Humans of Prague.

Despite the vast difference in location, each of his projects incorporates the one thing Princ knows most about: visual anthropology, the study of people and cultures through film and photography.

Inspired by the New York Times photo-project 1-in-8 Million and by American Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York blog, Humans of Prague displays a portrait of a stranger Princ encounters on the street and usually, a personal anecdote along with it.  The subjects in the photos are never named.

Princ, a 29-year-old Prague native, generally finds his fellow nationals to be unwilling photographic subjects. Czechs tend to be private in nature, a cultural trait that persists 25 years after the fall of communism.

“People being reserved here, it is true,” Princ said in the middle of the day at a coffee shop in the heart of Prague. “Forty years of Communism here and you can still feel it in the way some people behave.”

One of the questions Princ asks is what is your greatest struggle right now? “One girl said, ‘I am struggling with myself.’ That is a usual answer,” Princ said. “But then I ask, ‘What does it mean in your case?’ and some people don’t say anything more than this.”

Half of the people Princ encounters refuse to have their photos taken. Of the half who agree to a photo, a quarter refuse to share personal details.

“Being reserved is a learned habit from the totalitarian regime,” Salim Murad, a professor of political scientist at the University of Southern Bohemia, said. “If you are learned and trained in a totalitarian regime for several decades, you live in a cycle of family and friends. You don’t trust others.”

During the communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia, the secret police collected information about anyone they thought could be a threat to communism. Over 10,000 names were collected. This meant that anyone, colleagues, friends or even family members, could be giving information to the secret police.

There were also many laws preventing the freedom of speech. Although these laws have since been abolished, Czech society continues to feel their effects.

But perhaps that makes Princ’s journey even more intriguing.

Princ is a lanky man with a scruffy beard, whose crisply ironed, collared shirt and pullover sweater give him an uncanny resemblance to a university professor. Hours of daily walking through Prague in search for a story worth telling have left permanent scuffs on his brown Oxford shoes.

Princ says he often wanders the streets of Prague for two or more hours a day. He wants the people published on his website to help give viewers a richer idea of Prague and the people who live there.

“I hope that the foreign public can see the faces of the people and have a more specific image of Praguers after they see it,” he said.

„I have more trust in unrelated people than relatives.“

“I have more trust in unrelated people than relatives.” Photo courtesy of Humans of Prague.

Princ’s career is characterized by his desire to depict the people who are not usually seen, or noticed, by the general public.  During his time studying visual anthropology at Charles University, Princ traveled with a professor to a Roma colony in Slovakia, where he was able to apply his photography techniques for the first time.

In one photo captured on this trip, a group of Roma children huddle together inside of a dirt hole smiling up at the camera, seemingly proud of the grime ground into their baggy clothes. The dark features of the children are amplified by the black-and-white tones of the photograph, a stark contrast to the barren landscape behind them.

“I was on the way back to the village and saw a bunch of kids playing in this hole.  You can see on the picture that there is not much else for them to play with. I liked how they use what’s available for them—a hole, a place to jump over or go into and play,” Princ said of the photograph.

In 2010, The Guardian Camera Club, an online section of the British daily newspaper, reviewed Princ’s Flickr portfolio featuring his photographs of the Roma children. The review called his photos “wonderful documentary work” and complimented his ability to “cleverly combine the subject with the context” to tell a story.

Princ, self-described introvert, says his numerous trips abroad have helped him become more sociable, even as he deals with people who are less than sociable and turn down his photograph requests.

“Sometimes it is hard to get the refusal, but I don’t take it personally. I just smile and go on my way,” Princ said.  His desire for a captivating story motivates him to continue searching.

When it comes to finding the right subject instead of looking for a particular age group or type of person, Princ relies on what is visually striking or sometimes, just sheer timing.

“Sometimes it is what they look like, the outfit, but sometimes it is very random,” Princ said. “It’s just someone going in some street, going in the direction I am going.”

Pavla Ksiazkiewiczova, a student studying Eastern European studies at Charles University and an avid reader of Princ’s blog, says she enjoys how Princ “shows normal people you meet on the street.”

“The stories these people say are so interesting that sometimes I spend half an hour going from one picture to another,” Ksiazkiewiczova said.

Princ recently signed a contract with iHNed.cz, one of the Czech Republic’s leading daily news servers, making his blog an official part of the paper. Though he is now paid to pursue his passion for visual anthropology, he emphasizes that the company does not restrict or edit anything he publishes.

“Seven months since they were sponsoring me, I never had any doubt about what I should be using,” Princ said with a grin on his face. “I have a certain amount of photos to post every month and a certain amount of money from them. It’s my half-time job.”

I’ve found out it’s possible to do things slowly.

“I’ve found out it’s possible to do things slowly.” Photo courtesy of Humans of Prague.

Marilyn La Jeunesse is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2016.  Her hometown is Laguna Beach, California.

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Categories: Spring 2015 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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