Inadvertent art-photos of the Soviet-era Czech secret police

In 2010, Vice Magazine commemorated the publication of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes' "Prague Through the Lens of the Secret Police" with a set of photos taken by the Soviet-era Czech secret police. As noted, these photos, shot blindly with hidden cameras, are actually pretty good art-photography.

They were spying full-time on average citizens, hoping to catch them in a situation that could lead to a swift arrest and a lengthy incarceration in some dank, hidden cell. With their cameras secreted in a suitcase or under a coat, the agents had no idea what was being captured while they were taking these pictures. Their negatives, in which one finds brilliant snatches of street life from a time that few outsiders were able to see, are full of unexpected gems. Total art from a bunch of Communist lackeys and thugs. Who would have thunk it?

State-Sponsored Voyeurism (via How to Be a Retronaut)


  1. The general rule of thumb in photography is that all black and white photos of any subject or in any genre are “ART” – so, these shots definitely qualify. Covert imagery runs through the entire history of photography and these examples are very good.

    1. Uh, no. Not true at all. Within serious art, that sort of mentality is routinely mocked and is left for first-year art school.

  2. This simply reinforces my suspicion that “artsy” photographs are mostly taken by pointing the camera in random directions and pulling the shutter. I’m on to you….

    1. It’s not in the taking of the photos but choosing the right photo afterwords. And being able to make that choice. (See Lemoutan’s “artless” comment).

    2. It’s like a soviet era version of instagram: blurry and eerily similar photographs of various common locations of the time, giving you vague feelings of artsiness mixed with vertigo.

  3. In my counseling practice I’ve worked mostly with artists over many years — musicians, writers, painters, and one filmmaker. They’ve all been seeking something similar: a way beyond consciousness, that is, self-consciousness. They want the work to be all about removing every objective, every desire, every ego-concoction, from their experience as creators, and I can’t tell them that’s likely not practical even if it were p0ssible; they have to learn this with some immediacy. Still and all, I’ve always understood their implicit point, which is that art is best made, best approached, without a sense of human agency, without a sense of there being an artist to make it all happen. 

    I’ve had a similar experience with my own photography, and I once caught myself in a language trap. The full story is in the post at the link below, but it boiled down to this: I was accepting the notion that I was “taking” pictures, as the common expression goes; instead of receiving them. Realizing that made a difference. 

  4. In maybe another generation, maybe sooner, those who succeed the current UK ‘authorities’ will release similar pictures of our citizens photographed by all our surveillance cameras.

    These will be mostly from above. So, dress up people. Look your best. Wear flamboyant hats. In fact, flamboy as if there were no tomorrow. Your descendants will judge your fashion sense.

  5. Nice article/post. I just wish you wouldn’t have referred  to them as “communists”. The LAST thing those people were were communists. That’s like accepting at face value that George W. Bush is a Christian.

  6. My wife’s great aunt was a wine taster in East Germany. She never seemed to drink any of the wine in her house, but she must have been really good at her job because she was sometimes able to visit family in West Germany.

      1. Sorry, all our extended family photos are back in Europe. It would be interesting to see a photo of her before she died, though. Apparently she pretty much lived on a single sandwich and a few beers a day for the last eight years of her life. 

    1. I bought a case of DDR wine before leaving Berlin.  Shared it with some friends who laughed at the thought.  I laughed too when we uncorked the first bottle.  Stuff had so many bits of skin that I wish I had had a coffee filter on hand.

  7. We so often overlook the side benefits of totalitarianism. A friend who spent a winter in one of the damaged UNIS Towers in Sarajevo said that the vast quantities of paper generated by Communist-era bureaucracy provided a nearly inexhaustible supply of fuel. “Communism kept me warm” was the way he put it.

    1. That’s like saying ‘Well I can’t express myself or speak my mind, but I found a creative way to stay warm.’

      Oh well. If you’re stuck there look for what positives you can.

  8. I feel no shame in saying that those photos could easily be misinterpreted as Instagrams of modern North America.

  9. From the late 40’s to the 70’s an estimated 30,000 people died in the communist labour camps in Czechoslovakia.
    Some were shot trying to escape, many died in accidents in the uranium mines. And many from lack of medical attention.

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