“Everything I do makes me happy” says Václav Fanta.
Art photographer Václav Fanta became this year's laureate of the Olga Havel Award. We had met in Prague in the headquarters of the residential rehabilitation and requalification centre for blind people. Right there, he learnt to live a full life “in the darkness” after he had lost sight in his fifties. And there (but also elsewhere) he has been helping the blind. Read his story filled with ideas, but especially full of his rare gift to bring these ideas to a successful end.
You have been an art photographer for more than half of your lifetime. Have you always wanted to become a photographer?
Originally, I wanted to become a painter or a graphic designer. I began to study the secondary art school specialised in graphics and there, I got interested in photography. Because of that, I went to study art photography and graduated at FAMU later on.
What is so fascinating about photography?
It is kind of a testimony of a person with artistic vision and sense of art, who absorbed certain impression and expresses it in a form of photography. In order to become a good photographer, one needs to know a little bit of history, to be interested in art and social affairs, etc., so as to make his or her testimony true. That is what I was attracted to and was overwhelmed by.
You started working with scientific photography at the Institute of Microbiology of the Czech Academy of Sciences, then you turned to the world of fashion and advertisement. Later on, as a journalist, you published reports and art photographs from journeys around your homeland and the world. You also worked for the Orbis Agency as a photo editor. Pretty wide range of experiences! What did you enjoy the most?
I was mostly working with art photography which is linked to advertisement. My approach was to make people “crave” the picture. For instance the beer ad, I did not make it in a brewery as was suggested to me. Instead of that I went to Slapy (Water Reservoir) to evoke a feeling of the sea and freedom. There, I took a picture of a beautiful girl with a beer. Those who looked at her must have forgotten all their pains and ailments and crave beer immediately!
You used to live in Mexico in the mid 70s. Then you returned there in 1980 and then travelled also through Venezuela, Guatemala and Afghanistan.
It was rather a coincidence that I went to Mexico. I got a one year scholarship at an art school there. It was one of my most beautiful journeys, both for taking pictures of the ancient culture and architecture and for wonderful people. I love Mexicans and Mexico became my second homeland.
So the photographs from Mexico are the ones most treasured by you?
Well, any of my pictures needed to convey something, to have a soul. I enjoyed taking photos of old Mexican cultures and I got to interesting, mystical and inaccessible places. But I was also able to find beauty in ordinary municipal corners.
When did you find out that you were becoming blind?
First signs showed up in my twenties, when I was in the army. My illness (Retinitis Pigmentosa) is characterized by “tubular vision”. It proceeded from the periphery to the centre until my vision narrowed down to 20 degrees. Back then, I was treated at the Ophthamology Clinic at Bulovka Hospital” and I remained an optimist even though the diagnosis was - loss of sight. My friend Vilém was the only one who tried to bring me back to reality and warned me that one day I would be blind and walking with a white stick. It was hard to swallow. But he also told me to stay calm, for as long as my brain worked, I did not have to worry about blindness. And that it would be important for me to work with my intellect and not to fell into melancholy. I often remember his words.
How did it go further?
As I had been losing sight little by little, I got used to it and adapted to certain limitations. First, I began to lose my peripheral vision, then the rest. Obviously, radical change came with complete blindness.
What did you do in order to learn how to live in the darkness?
I started working with blind people. By a coincidence, on the occasion of the visit of pope John Paul II to the Czech Republic, I met with a friend, a Charity director. He told me about ongoing formation of a new catholic foundation for blind people (KNPN) and just like that I found myself right in the centre of the world of the blind, while helping with establishment of the foundation. Gradually, we found sponsors from Germany and I started to organise trips for blind catholic pilgrims. It was 1990 and borders opened. We went to Rome, France and Sweden. Our last trip was to Israel. It was wonderful!
How did you perceive those countries if not through your eyes?
It’s about the inner vision of blind people. Every place has its own atmosphere. You stand in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, and Golgotha, where he was crucified… We visited Israel at Christmas time and sang Christmas carols in the Church of the Nativity, that was a strong spiritual experience and an amazing feeling! We spent a relaxing time while swimming in the Dead Sea. That atmosphere, and the air!
Was it the loss of sight that brought you to faith?
No, I’ve been a believer since childhood. Because of that I took all with a humble approach as a test that would prove, how can one get by. I never asked: “Oh God, why me?!”
Catholic foundation for blind people was shut down after few years, but your activities in support of blind people continued.
A group of people from the foundation kept meeting every weekend to talk and sing at Dědina centre for blind. Among us, there was also was a music teacher Ondrej Čanecký, who cultivated our singing and became conductor of our choir later on. We wanted to somehow formalize the group and so we established a Vokál club at the SONS organisation. We organise concerts, sing folk songs, and everything else suitable for small choirs. We even recorded our own CD.
Was it your idea to establish a choir?
As I already mentioned before, it was a decision made by a group of singing enthusiasts. Based on my previous experience with the organisation, I was named chairman. We started to work with gusto, we developed our repertoire, started to practice and, of course, tried to find resources for our activities.
Singing must be a soul pleaser for you, right?
Singing in the Vokál club makes me happy, I’ve enjoyed singing ever since I was a child. However, to my disadvantage, I have to learn everything by heart. I can read Braille, but I can’t read music and texts in Braille at the same time.
Where did you learn Braille?
Right here, at the centre for blind people at Dědina. It was yet another coincidence that brought me here ten years ago: I came to the centre with a certain editor to take photos, I was still able to see a bit. And the then directress of the centre Ms. Shifferová asked me: “Wouldn’t you like to be taught here?” I told her I did not, that I would manage somehow. Still, she offered that I could learn to use a typewriter. And I accepted gladly.
I managed to write using all my fingers, but I was not able to read what I really wrote. So I began to learn how to use a computer since it can communicate with me. And I was hooked! Then it was a turn for the Braille to be learnt, for self-care, etc. Except all that, here in the centre, one can also learn how to make pottery or baskets, how to tot, or cook,… one can simply find here anything he or she is interested at.
You also came up with an idea to create pictures of saints for blind people.
It was when I got an idea how to help blind children see pictures of the saints. I knew an artist Jarmila Halová and I asked her to cut out relief figures of the saints, each of them with its own specific attribute: St. Agnes Czech holds St. Agnes’ Church in her hands, St. Wenceslas holds a sword and ensign and has a crown on his head, St. Peter holds a key, net with a fish and a rooster. Final design of the figures was upon Jarmila, I only take credit for the idea to create pictures for blind children and for getting financial resources for the project.
Is the exhibition open to the public?
The exhibition was shown for two months at the National Gallery branch at St. Agnes Monastery, then it moved to Brussels, it was displayed in Prague at “Infant Jesus” (the Carmelite Church), in the town of Kyjov and at the New Town Hall in Prague where it was literally seen by people from all over the world. Reliefs should be exhibited in the city of České Budejovice at the end of this year.
It is interesting how easily your activities cross the borders and spread further behind. The same applies to the game Qardo created by you.
The idea came up to me when I was trying to figure out how to enable blind people to play a (desk game) pexeso. So I thought we could create cards with carved figures. First, I cut out cards and carved a square in their middle in order to find out whether it was recognisable enough by touch. It was. Then the only thing to be solved was production and, it was feasible. When ready, the game was to be “endurance” tested by blind people themselves. The game got popular, as I was able to assess during the first Quadro Czech Open tournament in Pardubice. It motivated me to promote the game in other countries via my personal contacts.
Where is the game played?
Thanks to my friends, the game was introduced in Australia, Canada, Russia, Mexico and South America. I was particularly pleased by a grand tournament in Panama with participation of more than 200 blind children whose reaction was wonderful.
Let’s mention also the charity calendar, which you and agency RMedia work on (annually) for six years. What prompted you to such an activity?
I am trying to raise funds for our Vokál club and I am able to succeed thanks to my good relations with artists and graphics. Mostly, I am supported by artists from the Hollar art gallery, who contribute with their works for further exhibition and sale, and some of them provide their works for the unique annual calendar. All the money is then used for activities of the Vokál club choir.
You turned 76 this April, so you have the right to take the stock of your life a little bit. Could a life lived partly in the darkness be described as a happy one?
Definitely. If one gets lucky and has nice people around and if one is not seized by panic and horror, it is fine. One needs a hinterland, family and friends. I am excited to meet former classmates from graphic school and colleagues from different editorial offices where I used to work. I find joy in little things; it might sound like a cliché, but those who come to that cognition can live in happiness all their lives long.
Would there be anything that you regret?
Sometimes I am really sorry that I cannot see my grandson (one year old son of daughter Vendulka) as I heard a priest once say: “Look into eyes of a child and you will behold the God “. And that is what I miss sometimes. However, I take that non-vision of mine as a test for a man to be humble and to further search for a his mission.
Can you reveal what do you wish for?
There is not much to wish for. I wish people to keep a balanced soul and to live free from pursuit of possession and of unattainable things. Everybody has certain inner limits how far he or she can get. It is a nonsense to chase chimeras. I know that and I am a happy person, despite what befell me.