Muž s odhalenou hruďou pred okupačným tankom (The Bare-chested Man in front of the Occupiers’ Tank) – the photograph by Ladislav Bielik from the first day of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops on August 21, 1968, circulated across the globe. It became an iconic image bringing a deep and permanent legacy about the threat of injustice and violence committed by those in power.
This photograph and Bielik’s other 186 shots of these events still carry the power of utterance, fifty years later. They are not only a visual reminder of this dramatic period in our history, or a means to stir up emotions. For us they represent a deeper and permanent meaning, the legacy of a lived experience which strengthens and helps to enhance one’s sensitivity and response to any threat to freedom and independence.
The path of Ladislav Bielik’s “invasion” photo-reportage to the general public was complicated and dangerous. The first five photos were publicized anonymously on August 22 in a special edition of the Smena newspaper, which was under close surveillance. The paper quickly made its way to Munich where international news agencies picked up the photographs. During the period of Normalization which followed for years after the invasion the photos were banned and this chapter of our history was slanted. Bielik lost his job as well as the copyright for his photograph which had become famous. It was included in the World Press Photo collection in 1968. It was only after the changes in the regime in Czechoslovakia that Bielik could be publicly acknowledged as the photographer. The photographs in this series were exhibited for the first time in 2008 under the project entitled Ladislav Bielik: August 1968 in the park at Šafárikovo Square –the place where they were taken. A reproduction of Muž s odhalenou hruďou pred okupačným tankom will be issued as a postage stamp on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the invasion.
Ladislav Bielik (*1939 Levice – †1984 Budapest) was a Slovak photographer and photojournalist. He studied at the Chemical Vocational School in Bratislava and began to work at the Institute of Virology of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. At that time, he was also actively involved with photography. In 1965 he began to work at the illustrated weekly newspaper Štart and was later hired as a photo reporter for the Smena newspaper. As an active sportsman he preferred working in the field of sports. The general public became aware of him due to his series of photographs of the invasion of the Warsaw Pact troops on August 21, 1968. His photograph Muž s odhalenou hruďou... (Bare-chested Man in front of the Occupiers’ Tank) was picked up by the media all over the world. It was included in the World Press Photo collection (1968) and later in various publications of the best photographs of the 20th century. In 2003, the President of the Slovak Republic posthumously awarded Bielik the Ľudovít Štúr Order of the 2nd class for his extraordinary photojournalist work. In 2014, the Media Academy in Bratislava named one of its halls as the Ladislav Bielik Hall, which is where the permanent exhibition of his life and work is kept. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, a reproduction of Bielik’s photograph Muž s odhalenou hruďou pred okupačným tankom will appear on a postage stamp in the Art series.