Lukáš Houdek, a photographer, writer and curator tackling prejudices
Lukáš Houdek is a man of varied interests. As well as being a
photographer who has explored the post-war massacres of Czechoslovakia’s
ethnic Germans, he is co-curator of an exhibition entitled Transgender Me
that gets underway in Prague on Monday. In addition, Houdek, a Romani
Studies graduate, writes for a leading Roma affairs website; indeed, for
much of our interview I was under the mistaken impression that he himself
was a member of the ethnic minority.
“I was born in Stříbro, which is a small town in Western Bohemia, in
the Sudetenland. My parents are labourers, so the idea of studying was not
always in my life [laughs].
“I thought I would be a car mechanic or something like that. But I
decided to go to study at university. So I’m kind of the black sheep of
Or a white sheep.
“Or a white sheep [laughs].”
When did you first take an interest in photography?
“In 2005, when I was in Matiční St. in Ústí nad Labem, where a wall
was meant to be built to divide Roma people from non-Roma.
“I did some projects there with children. I just had my camera with me
and took some photos, and some people told me I had talent and should
“It’s my first photographs from there that I’m now exhibiting, from
2005. They weren’t taken for exhibition purposes, but I’m exhibiting
them now [in Transgender Me].”
I know that you have taken photographs of Romany people in various
European countries. What have you found to be the similarities and
differences in their lives in different European states?
“What’s very similar is their position in society. They are
discriminated against all over Europe, and even in India… Well, I
wouldn’t say in India they are Roma people, but they are Doms, which are,
let’s say, the ancestors of the Roma, and they are in a similar position
to Roma here.”
You mentioned Matiční St., which was I guess a point of conflict in the
mid-2000s. Recently there has been conflict, or tensions at least, in
České Budějovice between the majority population and the Roma minority.
I know it’s a big question, but can you see any way forward? Or what do
you think is the best way to approach that problem and to try to reconcile
the two communities?
“Well, I have changed my opinions over the years. Sometimes I think
it’s education that’s important – not education of Roma people only
[laughs], but education of non-Roma, most often.
“They need to be educated regarding the prejudices they have. Because
this is the main problem, knowledge. They don’t have any knowledge about
this group of people.
“Therefore they are scared and have these phobias and antagonism. They
just can’t really see that if some Roma rob somebody, it doesn’t mean
that they are all thieves and robbers.
“This is the main problem, and I think if they had more opportunities to
get to know each other, it would get much better.”
What’s the feeling within the Romany community? Are people scared?
Because České Budějovice is a flashpoint now, but people are saying that
the far-right Workers’ Party, or whatever they’re called [after being
banned they are now named the Workers’ Party of Social Justice], are
planning similar activities in other cities. Are Romanies afraid?
“Of course they are afraid. They are frightened. Because in the ‘90s
several Roma people were killed by neo-Nazi groups here. And they have
flashbacks to the Holocaust.
“It’s really getting worse and worse. If you read Facebook, you will
find that it’s full of racist comments, and really scary comments
sometimes. So I would say they are really scared.”
You referred to the Doms of India, the so-called ancestors of the Roma.
You went to India to photograph them – what did you find there?
“Actually I went there to finish my thesis, because I studied Romani
Studies in Prague and I wanted to find the similarities, if there are any,
between Roma and Doms.
“And I actually did – many of them. But the question is can we say
that the Roma brought them, because we can find similar, let’s say,
behaviours all over the world and in different cultures.
“So we couldn’t say. But it was very interesting and I think for the
Roma themselves it was very interesting, because I wrote some papers on the
subject and published them online.”
You have also had a number of projects looking at the post-war treatment
of the ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia. What is the attraction of the
subject for you?
“Well, for me it is always important to work with my own prejudices. I
always do that. If I have a problem with someone or with some group of
people, I try to break it.
“For example, when I had a problem with mentally challenged people. I
was disgusted when I watched them, so I just applied for a summer job at a
sanatorium in Greece and I spent one month there, helping them.
“I always do something like that. It helps me to overcome these
“For me it was the same with the Germans. I was always very much against
Germans, I really hated them, but I had no reason for that – just because
I come from the borderland.
“I wanted to work on that somehow, and in the end I got to know that
several incidents happened after the war that I was not told about at
“I felt cheated and I got really angry. I needed to work on this
subject, also to show other people what happened here, which till now we
are not able to speak about.
“I would say this helped me a lot in overcoming this problem. It’s
really funny now when people tell me I am a Germanophile, or something like
that. I come from an absolutely different, opposite background. But I came
to this point by myself.”
Earlier this year you had an exhibition called The Art of Killing, in
which you had Barbie dolls reenacting massacres from the post-war period.
What was the reaction? For instance, I saw online there was an interview
with you and some people were questioning your credentials, asking if you
had studied history and that kind of thing.
“The reactions were quite wild, I would say. For me it was a full-time
job for two weeks just to reply to emails and do interviews [laughs].
“In general I would say that it was very emotional. More than half the
people were really angry and really very rude.
“But also I got many emails that were very positive, even from people
who experienced the Holocaust in Auschwitz. They wrote to me or told some
people to tell me that they were really happy that I’d done it.
“They felt it was really important to show the victims on the other
side, too. That really made me happy when I heard this
“Of course, there were some people who didn’t experience the post-war
violence, the same as me, but they had the feeling that I couldn’t speak
about it but they could, because they were one year old when it happened.
“I think it’s still taboo. But this project showed that there are more
and more people who are very open to hearing about it and to reconstructing
their opinions about it. So I think some kind of reflection and discussion
Among your other activities is co-curating an annual exhibition called
Transgender Me, which is beginning on Monday. What is Transgender Me?
“Transgender Me is a programme or an accompanying event – that was the
idea – to Prague Pride, which starts in two weeks.
“The idea was to give a space for transgender issues. Because normally
at Prides all over the world there is not enough of a transgender programme
in the programme. It’s always about gays and lesbians.
“The first time, during the first Prague Pride, it was supposed to be
own exhibition of photos. But after I was, like, maybe we should add this
person or that person, and it became really big.
“The first year it was in NoD, last year it was in DOX, and this year we
are at the National Technical Library, in the great space there.
“We always have a theme on which we focus. For this year we chose
transgender in different cultures, times and contexts. We had this idea at
the beginning but it was difficult to get it together. So we had to wait
for three years to finish it.”
My final question is, if you don’t mind me asking, you’re gay and the
Roma community seem to me to be a very traditional society. Has that been
“Not really, because I’m not Roma. Many people think I am, because
I’m a little bit darker and also people think if you deal with the issue
you have to be Roma. And that’s not true. For me it doesn’t matter.
“Even some Roma think that I am Roma and they tell me that I shouldn’t
be afraid to say it openly, publicly. But I’m not.”
Well, excuse me for not doing enough research. Sorry.
“It’s OK. As for being gay, as I was doing research in Roma
communities I was afraid about how they would react to finding out that
I’m gay. Because they sometimes spoke about gays very rudely.
“But in the end when I had a public coming out two years ago in some
article I got some emails from some old Roma who said, we are behind you,
we believe in you.
“I was really happy that they took it this way, and I was really
surprised. So I have absolutely no problem.
“My opinion is that if you yourself don’t have a problem with your
sexuality and you show people you are OK with that, then they can’t
really harm you. Because you are self-confident.”