Prague, Czech Republic – Like other historical metropolises across Europe, Prague is moving fast. The demographics, urban landscape and social dynamics of the Czech capital have undergone a remarkable metamorphosis over the past 20 to 30 years, transforming the lives of its residents and changing the experience of short-time visitors.
As any true Praguer has surely noticed, none more than Žižkov in Prague’s 3rd district embodies this fast-moving evolution. Klez Brandar, a French-born photographer, avid globe-trotter and long-time Prague resident set out the capture the fleeting life of one of Prague’s most famous neighbourhoods through a personal and unique series of nearly 100 pictures.
“A few years back, Žižkov was the hotspot of an incredible cultural, social, and economic diversity,” Brandar, a former resident of Prague’s 3rd district, told Kafkadesk. “It was a very popular – in the literal sense of the word – neighbourhood, with many Roma people and elderly Czechs mixing with middle-class foreigners or young expats, including Russians and Ukrainians.”
“When I saw this, and experienced first-hand how the district was slowly losing its multi-cultural feel, I felt the need to document it through a series of photographs that could serve as a testimonial of Žižkov’s vanishing identity in 10 or 20 years”.
In a project aimed at “taking the pulse” of shifting urban identities, the Bretagne-born Klez Brandar set out on the streets of Žižkov, a formerly reputed “dangerous” area of Prague, to grasp and record what makes it such a special place: its people, and their untold stories.
“The concept is simple”, he explains. “I wandered around the neighbourhood with my camera, came up to strangers in the street and asked them if I could take their picture.”
Of course, the whole endeavour is a bit more complicated than it sounds. Choosing potential subjects based on “what their face, expressions, posture or other attributes intuitively said about them,” Brandar initiated the talk, created the interaction, and as a rule only took one single, black-and-white picture of each person with his 1978 analog camera.
Spontaneity, and the sometimes-imperfect originality it creates, are key to the whole project, which has been four years in the making. “The process, format and end-result all serve one common purpose: going to the core of the subject,” he explains, mentioning some of his inspirations, from Vivian Maier and Diane Arbus to Henri Cartier-Bresson and Sebastião Salgado.
“Nothing was planned in advance, and every ‘shoot’ wrapped up in under 5 minutes between two strangers who never met and, in most cases, will never meet again,” he recalls, jokingly adding that the project also served as a great exercise to improve his Czech skills.
The fact that Žižkov is the district with the highest concentration of bars per square meter in Europe may also, one can venture, have helped break the ice with the more hesitant subjects.
“Yes, I’ve had a few rejections from people who, for various reasons, did not want their picture taken,” he confides. “But reactions were in the most part positive, and many of them wanted to stay in touch to receive the picture once it’d been developed. My job as a photographer was somewhat similar to a film director: I had to make sure people felt comfortable, find what puts them at ease or steer the conversation towards a memory, feeling or experience that made them smile or laugh,” he explains, noting that his own experience as an airline steward probably came in handy to do so.
Creating impromptu street interactions to document a fading urban diversity: entitled “Bydlíte tady na Žižkově?” as a nod to the first thing he said to his subjects (“Do you live in Žižkov?”), the means and end of Brandar’s series mutually support and explain one another.
It’s also a very personal endeavour. Having lived for years in highly ghettoised cities in Latin America and been brought up in a socio-economically polarised France, Žižkov’s melting-pot identity was a welcome breath of fresh air for him. Used to Breton warmth and the instantly sociable Latin character, reaching out to strangers, and creating an authentic albeit short-lived bond with passers-by was highly appreciated in not-so-Latin Czech Republic – especially during two years of COVID.
“This project truly helped me grow, both personally and artistically,” he tells us. A self-taught photographer eager to explore a slower lifestyle, more genuine interpersonal relations, and long-term social dynamics, Klez Brandar’s photography showcases aspects of our existence easily cast-aside in our everyday lives. “Sure, ultimately, taking pictures may just be an excuse to talk to people. But no harm in that, right?”
If you’re interested in Klez Brandar’s Žižkov series, stay tuned for his upcoming exhibition, or a dedicated photo-book in the works. In the meantime, be sure to check out his other ongoing projects on his YouTube channel, including an EP in five languages and a clip with a dancer from the Czech National Theater.