Jan Šibík

* 1963  

  • “It might have sounded theatrical, this chanting: 'Our hands are bare, our hands are bare,' but their hands were bare indeed. There was no one armed with a rock or a stick of sorts – the usual stuff you would get while protesting all over the world. Now I understand why the Western World called this revolution of ours a velvet one. As the students were concerned, it was velvet indeed. So there was this theatrical: 'Our hands are bare,' but they were hundred percent real. As I had never sen, even after I started covering events like this all across the world and I witnessed hundreds of protests and revolutions, I have never seen people protesting behaving in such a velvet manner – just those bare hands. That was this unique element of this Czech revolution – non-violence, non-violent behaviour of the students. And that's why this police action at Národní Avenue can be seen as a massacre in our country. Because... Yes, we would use this term and maybe it is the proper term, but when I witnessed all those clashes with the regime in other countries, I saw people die on a regular basis. There was nothing like this here in the country.”

  • “The procession came to Vyšehradská Street. There were many people who thought that I took one of my most famous pictures – those wide open eyes gazing through the police shields – at Národní Avenue, but I didn't take it on Národní Avenue. I took it to Vyšehradská Street, where the regime stood in the way of the procession for the first time. All of a sudden, there was this line of policemen and people would sit down and, as always, they would go: 'Our hands are bare!' And I thought: 'To make this photo work I have to have both sides in the picture.' So my only chance was to take this photo of those unarmed people through the police line. So I went behind them and again I was afraid. But this need to do the photo prevailed. So at a certain moment I would jump being the policemen – and I was indeed just a foot away from them – and take some photos. And I saw this man, and at that moment he had his eyes just in line with the police shield. And I was lucky, as there was this TV crew lighting the whole scene. And as the light was coming from the side the people protesting were, and there was this man who came right to those shields... so as this TV crew would put on their lights, they would attract all the attention and I could go on unnoticed. So I could get this close to the police. And I did, I know it exactly, those three shots. Two of them were blurry, and in one of them, those eyes were hidden under the shield – and there was just this single one, the right one, where you have those eyes gazing above the shields. And after that I just took off.”

  • “I think it was quite a small price to pay for the freedom the people who had been working for the Young World had, that it had been quite a reasonable bargain. I didn't think I had been prostituting myself or serving anybody's purpose. And I thought most people understood this, as it was so important that the magazine would cover issues like drug abuse or some other social problems. As there were no other magazines that could cover something like this. Or if they would cover it the result would be dry, lifeless and completely unrealistic. People from the Young World were so good that they were able to give you quite a realistic view of things. Back then, there was Velek, who could cover environmental problems in quite a realistic way, there was Radek John, there was Křesťan, who wrote such great columns. The editorial staff maintained quite a high standard of work, thanks to the topics they were covering or maybe the people in it. And the visual supplement was also of a high quality and had been an integral part of all the coverages. That was the reason why everyone thought the magazine was just great – as it would all put together. There were those able people and thanks to our editor, Čermáková, we could write about things and take photos of things no one else could.”

  • Full recordings
  • 1

    Praha, 29.04.2021

    (audio)
    duration: 01:49:28
    media recorded in project Stories of the 20th Century TV
  • 2

    Praha, 09.11.2021

    (audio)
    duration: 02:05:01
    media recorded in project Stories of the 20th Century TV
Full recordings are available only for logged users.

Photographer of the Velvet Revolution

Jan Šibík in 2021
Jan Šibík in 2021
photo: Během natáčení

He was born on 15 April 1963 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and has been an avid photographer since his childhood. As a twenty-three years old, in 1986, he started working as a photographer for the Young World (Mladý svět) magazine – the then most popular magazine with circulation of half a million copies. A year later, he transferred to the Vlasta magazine, but above all he took pleasure in taking photos that couldn’t be published in a magazine. On 21 August 1988, armed with a camera, he attended one of the first anti-regime protests of the late 1980s and after that he didn’t miss a single one. In 1989, he took photos during the ‘Palach Week’, he captured the fall of the Berlin Wall and the student march on November the 17th. His photos of the Velvet Revolution have become well known, yet he has documented the bloody collapse of the communist regime in Romania as well. After the revolution he had been working as a photographer for the Reflex weekly magazine, documenting wars, famine, epidemics and many other topics across the globe. He won various awards for his photos, like the 3rd place in the World Press Photo competition. After 2000, he organised two fund-raising campaigns: to support children in Sierra Leone and people infected with AIDS in Ukraine.