Eyes wide open
Acclaimed photojournalist Michal Novotný provides a window to the world
Posted: August 21, 2013
Courtesy Photo: Michal Novotný
The section of the show called "Festivals" finds people in the midst of celebrations.
Czech photographer Michal Novotný is no stranger to Old Town Hall. The exhibition space inside the Prague landmark is the traditional venue for the annual display of the Czech Press Photo awards, which Novotný has won in one or more categories almost every year since 1997. With numerous other awards to his credit, including World Press Photo and National Press Photographers' Best of Photojournalism, Novotný has become one of the most acclaimed photojournalists in the country.
His exhibition "Your World, My Eyes," which continues until Aug. 25, presents a capsule version of more than two decades of his work from various corners of the globe. While he doesn't shy away from war zones, Novotný tends to gravitate toward stories that are outside of the international spotlight and have a strong human dimension.
He has divided the show into six thematic groups, with two-thirds of the themes containing cycles shot in different locations. For example, the section titled "Children" encompasses photo stories on street children in Ukraine and child labor in Bangladesh, while the "Festivals" section spans from India and Nepal to the Czech Republic.
Most of the individual photo stories are represented by around a dozen images, giving them a compactness and yet also enabling a range of shots, both ones that convey a sense of the environment in which the story unfolds and also ones that focus more intimately on individuals.
Old Town Hall Ends Aug. 25. Staroměstské nám. 1, Prague 1-Old Town.
Open Mon. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Tues.-Sun. 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
On the ground floor are two sections: "Blindness" and "Children." The show begins with a radically off-center half-portrait of the chief of a lepers' community in eastern Liberia, its composition compelling viewers to think about the unseen half of the man's face. The photo is part of the series "Sightless People in Liberia," which won third prize in the World Press Photo's "Daily Life Stories" category in 2005. The other series in this section was shot during a monthlong visit to a school for blind boys in the remote reaches of Haridwar, India, and captures a number of poignant moments. This series was recognized with a Czech Press Photo award.
Perhaps the most harrowing story in the show is about street kids in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. Hardened yet still vulnerable, these boys are living in sewers and squats while they destroy themselves with drugs. In one image, a viewer can almost hear the agonized cry of a boy who can't find a vein to inject his fix. Equally affecting is a series of black-and-white photos drawing attention to child labor in Bangladesh, ranging from young boys working in a brickyard in the baking sun to girls toiling in a garbage dump in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka.
Novotný, who turns 40 this year, has been traveling around the world with his camera for more than half of his life. His career began in 1991 when, at the age of 18, he decided to hitchhike to the war zone in the former Yugoslavia. Since that time, he has traveled to more than 60 countries.
The sad fates of children downstairs yield to the travails and traditions of adults (primarily) up on the first floor. Among the photo stories upstairs is a series documenting the training of the Afghan soldiers and police expected to bring stability to the country. He conveys a sense of unpreparedness and confusion in a photo of troops in sloppy formation, with harsh shadows making the marching soldiers' legs seem to diverge chaotically in all directions.
Another section documents wrestlers in Senegal, Gambia and India. In the series from India, the red earth of the arena coats the sweaty bodies and faces of the young men performing this ancient style of wrestling. In one image, the hair of two wrestlers is caked with iron-rich earth like laurel wreathes.
The fervor of sport segues into religious fever in a series on exorcisms and faith healing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In stark black and white, Novotný photographs people who have abandoned Catholicism for zealous preachers who promise to rid believers of demons, which are said to be responsible for war, disease and other woes. He captures faces full of emotion, shedding tears of agony and anger at unseen evil forces as well as hope and joy.
He has also documented expressions of religious faith in India and Nepal, documenting Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic festivals teeming with human life and brimming with color: faces and clothing painted blue and yellow, brightly hued ceremonial clothing and headdresses.
The exhibition concludes with a story closer to home: Moravian folk festivals, which he began documenting in 2006. Revelers are dressed in colorful costumes bedecked with flowers and ribbons, and are cheerfully fortified with sweet koláče and shots of slivovice.
Michal Novotný opens a window onto places few of us will ever see with our own eyes, and he documents cultural traditions that could be on the brink of disappearing. With fewer and fewer avenues for publishing thoughtful, in-depth photo stories like his, we can only hope that committed photojournalism does not join the ranks of endangered cultural heritage.
Mimi Fronczak Rogers can be reached at