Today we’re looking at some amazing (private) moments in time photographed by the (communist) Czech secret police while conducting surveillance during the 1970s and 1980s. Obviously, none of these people gave their consent and most did not even know they were being followed or photographed. Most of the images were taken from under folded newspapers, in coat jackets or inside purses or briefcases. This is how tabs were kept on ordinary people by the secret police who were in charge of keeping tabs on certain people in the hopes that they’d soon have cause to make arrests.
The photographs toured in art exhibits between 2008-2010 and have also been compiled into a book entitled Prague Though the Lens of the Secret Police.
“The photographs are from the Institute of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague, where a related Security Services Archive opened last year. The show’s first U.S. stop was the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Its second was Harvard. Kramer has worked extensively in the Czech police archive. Stored end to end in file cabinets, he estimates, are more than 30 miles of documents. Czech authorities say it will take a decade to digitize all of that paper, microfiche, film, and photography.”
Read what else Harvard University has to say about the images.
You can also read about the exhibition at Harvard University.
These images are from when the exhibit was in Prague. It looks as though people are searching for who they know – or if they themselves – were being watched and photographed.
The book has been published by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. The book was published in 2008 and it is an extensive collection of photos taken in Prague by the Czech secret police. The introduction and notes are in both Czech and English.
When you look at the photos from a surveillance perspective, it almost makes everyone immediately look guilty… and I wonder how many people were arrested just for checking their watch and speaking to someone on the tram.
On December 3, 2009, the Harvard Gazette wrote the following:
In 1948, when Czechoslovakia became a Communist state, there were 14 men in a special police unit who were spying on citizens. They had only one camera. By 1989, just before the Velvet Revolution transformed the Czech Socialist Republic into a democracy, 795 men and women were in the Surveillance Directorate of the State Security Service.
These domestic spies embraced a James Bond modernity. They used many cameras — concealed in tobacco pouches, purses, briefcases, transistor radios, lighters, and on engine blocks (for mobile surveillance). They mounted Sony television cameras in parked cars and in a baby carriage wheeled around by operatives posing as married couples. They ran up tabs for meals and beer. All was carefully archived, including deadpan written reports that read like postmodern fiction.
One began: “ALI was caught at the train station hall while perusing the arrival board. ALI was bareheaded, dressed in a white-striped outfit and white shoes. She was carrying a white plastic bag and a brown purse. Afterwards …”
Haviland Smith, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s station chief in Prague from 1958 to 1960, attended the opening.
He called surveillance “an expression of the regime’s desire to stay in power — nothing more, nothing less.”
Surveillance was often layered, professional, and constant.
Here are some of the photographs we could locate from various sources online who were writing about the exhibit and the book.
The only copy we were able to locate for purchase in the US or UK is here. Otherwise, searching the Czech title takes you to numerous booksellers throughout the Czech Republic where you can purchase the book.
If you enjoy peeping at voyeuristic images, you may also like out post on Miroslav Tichy.