Fotograf Magazine

Josef Moucha’s Military Diary

In 2009, the Fiducia gallery in Ostrava presented an extensive collection
of photographs by Josef Moucha. All of them were taken at the time of the
Czechoslovak normalization, during the then compulsory military service.
Now, KANT has published the book form of Moucha’s project: Válka za
studena (Cold War). Chronologically, it is the photographer’s early work –
he took the pictures as a young graduate of the Faculty of Journalism at
Charles University in Prague. As a graduate, Josef Moucha had to spend
only a half of the compulsory 24 months in the army. Since he was in the
position of “educator”, he could capture not only the daily life of recruits,
but also many official events he would not be allowed to photograph
without permission.

The series is in fact an extensive report in the form of diary – a picture
essay with an elaborated composition in the spirit of classic humanistic
documents. In the introduction, Vladimír Birgus compares the series to
the legendary Abeceda duševního prázdna (The Alphabet of the Spiritual
Emptiness) created by Zdeněk Tmej during the Totaleinsatz in World War II.

The sophisticated structure of Moucha’s publication reflects the
cyclical sequence of events and situations: pubs, farewell parties, the basic
training (when every recruit quickly realized he had become a mere number
in the anonymous machine), and the soul-destroying monotony of the
everyday routine. The fatty faces of brass hats and political commissars,
the ubiquitous ideological slogans, and the stereotype of the recurring
ideological brainwashing (“political and educational work with soldiers”)
even the agitators themselves no longer believed in. But also the boredom,
the waste of time, the Orwellian loss of privacy, and the effort to break
free from the impersonal machinery at least for a while (dance scenes at
the gym referring to films by Miloš Forman; a picture of children playing
with a fake revolver referring to William Klein). The atmosphere is full of
absurd humour and strange sadness, and reminds the viewers of the Good
Soldier Švejk or Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

Moucha’s photos do not impress with emotional stories; their form
is often modest. In other plans, however, we can see image refinement,
compositional elegance, and mainly irony, sad humour, and melancholy.
The Czechoslovak normalization period (’68–’89) is often described as timeless. But personal stories of individuals can show private comedies and dramas on the background of any historical era. Josef Moucha’s transhistorical publication is a proof of that.

Jan Jakub Dvořák

Moucha, Josef, and Birgus, Vladimír. Josef Moucha: Válka za studena.
Prague: KANT, 2017. ISBN 978-80-7437-239-1.

Jan Jakub Dvořák