After fleeing from her native Prague in August 1968, Liba Taylor made a new life for herself in the UK, where she studied photography under a member of the prestigious Magnum Photos group. From her base in London she travelled extensively, documenting the work of major international humanitarian agencies – including the UNHCR, UNICEF and Save the Children – in some of the poorest and most desolate spots on earth.
“I’m from Prague. I was born in 1950 and grew up in Kobylisy, which is a suburb of Prague, in a very kind of countrified environment. We had a farm behind the house. It was a very easy childhood.
“But it wasn’t really that easy from the political point of view, because my parents weren’t in the Communist Party. I think I always knew that it was going to be very difficult for me to go and study, unless things changed. So when I was 18 and thinking about what to do, I got the application to go to university and just through it out.
“In 1968 it quite easy to leave the country – it was the first time in my life you could actually leave without any hassle…”
You left in August 1968.
“One day after the invasion [laughs].”
That was so quick – had you already decided to leave?
“I had. I had my visas for England and it was just a question of deciding when to go. I was going to go in September. I was going to be an au pair. I didn’t speak much English, so I spent the summer trying to learn some. And then the invasion happened.
That year the Soviet invasion was one of the biggest stories in world news. Did you find a lot of sympathy in England?
“I did actually. It was quite amazing. People were very sympathetic, people were very helpful, people were very shocked. In fact I found sympathy on the way through Austria and France to England. The minute I said I was Czech, there was immediately a lot of help available.”
When you arrived in England it was still the Swinging Sixties. Did that make a big impression on you?
“I think I was in a completely different world. I was in a state of slight shock. Obviously London made a huge impression because it was a big city. All the things one knew from pictures and films were actually there, all around you.
“So, yes, I was very happy that I was in London – and I was very happy that I’d managed to get out.”
You eventually studied documentary photography. What led you to that area?
“I always used to take photographs. I was given my first camera when I was about nine years old. I learned to develop films and so on, and I used to take pictures on school trips and family pictures.
“I never thought I’d be a photographer, although it occurred to me while I was still living here that FAMU would be a nice school to go to, but as I said before, I knew that was going to be impossible so I never really thought about it. In England it became possible to study anything, especially in those days.
“Then I met David Hurn, who was a member of Magnum, and he had just set up a school of documentary photography in Newport. He invited me onto the course, which was quite amazing, because there were only 10 people every year.
“I think because he was a friend of Josef Koudelka, who was a very famous Czech photographer at the time, he thought I was going to be as good as Josef. I think he was mistaken, but anyway [laughs] he gave me the opportunity and it was a wonderful course.”
You came to focus on photography linked to humanitarian projects. What was the attraction?
“I think the initial attraction was that I wanted to travel. It seemed that that was a very good way of doing it. I didn’t really know very much about humanitarian work, but I was a documentary photographer and I wanted to document something that wasn’t photographing countries as a tourist. I didn’t particularly want to do travel photography, so this seemed like a good option.
“I was one of the first to do it and actually get paid for it. Before it was usually done by rich people who were their supporters; they would travel and take a few snaps that were then used – and they were usually quite bad.
“So I was quite lucky in that I was given a huge opportunity to spend a lot of time in villages in Africa and Asia and to document the lives there.”
You’ve done that work for many decades. Have there been any particular trips, or any particular countries, that made a deep impression on you?
“I think the countries which made the deepest impression were countries where people didn’t go to very frequently. Therefore they weren’t kind of Westernised, they were kept in their original form.
“That was the case with Sudan. I travelled across the desert in Darfur and spent a lot of time in Darfur. Also Somalia. I’ve been to Somalia many times. The first time was when it was still Somalia and it was very peaceful. Then I was there during the war, in Mogadishu, several times.
“Lately I’ve been several times to Somaliland, because I’ve become a good friend of Edna Adan, who is an amazing Somali woman who built a hospital in Hargeisa. So I feel very close to that country and I think I am one of not many people who travelled across Somalia and Somaliland many times.”
In your work you must have seen many terrible things, including immense poverty. I saw on your website there was a photo of a victim of an acid attack. What impact have such experiences made on you personally?
“I think over the years I’ve realised how actually difficult the world is for the majority of people. The people who live fairly easy lives in Europe and in America are a very small minority.
“The majority of people in the world actually live in very, very harsh conditions. They live on the breadline. They live on the verge of death every day. It kind of politicised me in a different way, I would say, than getting out of here did.
“It also made me realize that unless something is done about it – nothing can be done to resolve the problem, because the problem is too huge – but I think it helps when people do support third world projects. They know about what’s happening in the third world. They spread the word and they do improve the conditions of people in those countries.”
Have you found yourself in any particularly dangerous situations?
“Not really. Or at least they were potentially dangerous but you are there and you don’t really realise it. I think also I was more frightened going, leaving London and not knowing what I was going to go into. But once you get there, it just becomes part of it.
“I think the worst I’ve ever seen, and what was potentially dangerous – and a lot of people had problems – was in Goma, in 1994 I think it was, when there were one million Hutu refugees from Rwanda. The whole situation was very chaotic. It was very dangerous, journalists were robbed, had their cameras stolen, etc., etc.
“So that was probably the worst, but it was also the worst humanitarian disaster I’ve ever seen and is something which I will live with forever.”
Were you more at risk as a woman in these situations?
“I don’t think so. I’ve never really thought of it like that. I think for me I made a decision that I was going to listen to what local people say and not take unnecessary risks. If your guide says, we shouldn’t go there because it’s dangerous, you don’t go.
“Because not only do you put your own life at risk, but his life as well. People in places like Africa are breadwinners for a number of people in the family; it could be up to 50, so you don’t want to get your guide killed as a result of your ambition.”
In recent years you’ve returned to live here in Prague. How have you found that adjustment?
“Well, it’s very different [laughs]. I always used to come back here, but it was for a week, two weeks, three weeks maximum. So for me it was always like another country you visit; you’re learning about it, every day is a different experience.
“I think living here is slightly different. At the moment, I’m very nervous about who is going to win the presidential election.
“Even though I know that the president is not the most important person in the country, it seems very important that the right person wins, because things have been slipping quite badly – the amount of corruption, etc. you read about in the paper is unacceptable.
“I hope we don’t slide down the same slope as we used to do every 20 years.”
“It’s quite visual. I think it’s also me being absolutely obscene and trying to take funny pictures of the old Communists, who I grew up with and who were wrecking my life for 18 years, until I left. So it’s me coming to laugh at them.”
It’s your little revenge?
“It’s a little revenge, yes. It’s a very small revenge, but that’s what I can do [laughs].”