István Jávor is a well-known photographer, the former unit still photographer for the Mafilm Hungarian Film Studios, a cameraman, and a documentary director. In the 1980s, he documented and participated in the activities of the democratic opposition: he was one of the organizers of the flying university, which was called Monday Open Universities (Hétfői Szabadegyetem), and beginning in 1979, he also hosted them for a time. He was also the founder and one of the leaders of the samizdat video magazine Fekete Doboz (Black Box), which was launched in 1987.
His family suffered under the persecution of Jews during the Second World War, and this had a significant influence on how his parents led their lives. Their credo was that one needs to accept the rules and limits of the system. Jávor summarized their viewpoint in a single sentence in an interview with his friend and fellow dissenter, Sándor Szilágyi: “If you don’t make any trouble, you will be left in peace.” As a high school student, Jávor broke with his parents’ principles and lived a less conformist life. He was expelled from the Kölcsey Ferenc High School for his conduct. At the same time, however, his lifestyle was not very different from that of many other middle class teenagers: he loved beat music, started a band, often visited the University Theatre and the Film Museum, and read Solzhenitsyn and Salinger. In other words, he was one of many consumers of the cultural products that were tolerated by the regime during the “consolidation” of the Kádár era. After having completed high school, with the help of some acquaintances, he gained admittance to the Association of Hungarian Photographers, where he started his career as a photographer.
Jávor’s relationships had a decisive influence on his life. When he was a student, he met a woman named Zsuzsi, who was the daughter of the manager of the May 1st Clothing Factory. They married in 1969. Jávor’s family them with financial security, and his father-in-law helped them gain benefits that were only available to high ranking cadres. They got an apartment in Óbuda, and they were able to travel to the Soviet Union, which was an opportunity only available to citizens who were deemed politically reliable. In 1970, they travelled to Moscow and the Black Sea. While they were travelling in comfort, Jávor saw widespread poverty. This was a disenchanting experience for him.
He was unable to fulfil his plan to become a press photographer. It was almost impossible for him to get a job at a newspaper. He took fashion and advertising photos, which was a lucrative profession. His wife was working in the fashion industry, and Jávor often accompanied her to the exhibitions she organized, so he had no real difficult getting commissions. He was thus able to remain financially independent throughout the Kádár era. He eventually got a job as a professional photographer. In 1972, he met cameraman Elemér Ragályi, who began to take him to shootings. At the beginning for fun and later as a professional unit still photographer he started to take photographs at these shootings. The logic of socialist economies made it possible for Jávor to take numerous (grayscale) photographs. One of his friends who was working as a photographer at a large construction company provided him with the necessary raw materials. Since the company would have been at a disadvantage if it had not been able to spend its entire budget under the state economic system, Jávor was practically doing it a favour by using its materials. He thus got a lot of experience in unit still photography. Thanks to this, he soon got his first official job as a photographer at Mafilm.
In 1973, he began working as a unit still photographer at the shootings of numerous movies, such as Eszkimó asszony fázik (Eskimo Woman Feels Cold, 1984), a cult film of the alternative scene, and the documentary film Dunaszaurusz (Danubesaurus, 1988), which presents the various problems raised by the Gabčíkovo–Nagymaros Dam project. As Jávor recalled in an interview given to the Oral History Archives of the 1956 Institute, “there were a great number of directors who could make movies anytime they wanted, since they were unconditional supporters of the regime. I hated these movies. Not just the directors, but the movies, loyal to the regime. So it might not have been an accident that I was found by those who I could also bear to work with.” It is thus hardly surprising that a movie which was hardly loyal to the regime had the strongest influence on Jávor. Pál Schiffer’s docu-fiction, Cséplő Gyuri (Gyuri Cséplő, 1978) exposed him to poverty and the lifestyle of members of the Roma community of Hungary up close. As Jávor noted in the aforementioned interview, “this [experience] had a strong influence on my career in many aspects. There might be some affinity between me and the young sociologists who studied under István Kemény and later become the vanguards of the democratic opposition.”
Jávor was in a unique position in the first half of the 1970s. On the one hand, he was living relative comfortably considering the prevailing circumstances and the limits imposed by the system. On the other, he opposed the system, although these feelings largely remained more a matter of reflex than reflection. He had a hard time explaining his concerns to his father-in-law, who was part of the leading cadre. In 2010, he offered the following recollection: “All problems with communism were seen by them as the mistakes or sins of individual people, but the principles, the ideas behind the system, were seen as flawless. They were thinking like religious people. We always had big debates. I tried to explain why I was against the system. It was not an ideology, it was simply revulsion. The insincerity of the system, how fake it was, how hypocritical, the closedness always bothered me. That because my sister had defected, I could not get a passport for years. I felt locked in, not just because I did not have a passport, but because the atmosphere was so depressing.” His divorce turned his life around significantly, and later, in 1978, his eyes were opened not just by Cséplő Gyuri, but also by his new partner, Mária Vera Varga.
Varga drew his attention to social and political issues, and she prompted him to search for deeper interrelations. As he recalled, “[Everything that] I did not like about the country was made clear. It became objective and plausible because we were talking a lot.” He also became a member of the democratic opposition through Varga. In 1979, he began to host the legendary “Monday Open Universities” at his apartment in Buda. They held public gatherings and lectures on various social, political, and historical issues in his residence in Óra alley, where he moved from the “inhuman” block housing residential district. These lectures drew relatively large audiences. Sometimes, as many as 100 or 150 people came to hear them. The tape recordings of the lectures were sometimes distributed as samizdat. Jávor offered the following recollection of the atmosphere of these “flying universities”: “These gatherings always had a kind of slight, tingling sensation, the mild excitement of illegality. At the time, it meant belonging to a club, an informal circle, which was a very good feeling. That I am not a part of the manipulations which were features of the lives of the unfortunate majority, so I can know a lot more than others. The romantic feel of the situation had a good effect on me.” However, because he provided the venue for the gatherings, he also attracted the attention of the authorities. He was the subject of numerous reports at the time, and the authors of these reports came to the conclusion that “he was not engaged in other opposition activities” (see the report on the flying university published in Beszélő on 19 January 1981). This information was only partially accurate, as Jávor distributed samizdats, and if necessary, he also helped with reproduction and photographing. He was quite impressed by the courage of those who were making samizdat magazines and who did not conceal their names or addresses.
Jávor was influenced by his exposure to and participation in the flying universities in other ways as well. After hearing lectures by Gáspár Miklós Tamás on Transylvania, Jávor travelled to Transylvania in 1980, and he also took a series of photos while travelling through Transcarpathia. His goal with these sociographic photos was to capture images of the social problems in these places, as he had understood them on the basis of Tamás’ lectures. He compiled three albums of these Transylvanian photos, and the photos he took in Transcarpathia during a 1981 trip to Poland were made available in the so called Rajk-boutique (the most famous samizdat shop in Budapest). Sometimes, the pictures were also presented at events held by the Foundation for the Provision of Support for the Poor (SZETA). Publishing them was out of the question for political reasons.
The closing lecture series of the Monday Open University was held by András Hegedüs in 1981. After the first session of the series, Ottó Föld, the manager of Mafilm, told Jávor he could either continue providing a venue for these events or he could keep his job. Jávor choose to keep his job, and the flying universities were no longer held at his apartment. However, the social contacts remained: he met with his children’s mother in this environment. His friendship with Görgy Berkovits was especially important to him. Berkovits had been married to Mária Vera Varga, who in the meantime had passed away. Berkovits was the editor of the sociography column of the journal Mozgó Világ (Moving World), as well as one of the editors of the Bibó Memorial Book. Jávor’s relationship with him also deepened his social sensitivity.
At this time, Jávor began to turn towards cinematography in part because of the encouragement he was given by director András Szirtes. Szirtes was a board member of the Béla Balázs Studio, so he could provide access to video cameras. Jávor started work on a documentary film based on an interview with György Berkovits. In 1983, he completed his movie Találós kérdések (Riddles), which included an interview with András Hegedüs on the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Editing the film was made possible by the Pannonia Film Studio, and thanks to Jávor’s connections, he could also see footage and photos hidden from the public. However, the regime did not permit the film to be distributed. In the life history interview that was done with him, Jávor ventured the following explanation and hypothesis concerning the fate of the film: “During the projection, the party secretary of the lab walked in, and he could not believe his eyes. He quickly phoned the party directorate of the district for instructions, so they came and took the whole thing away. It was probably taken to Báthory street, where the comrades watched it until it was ruined, up until 1989.”
In 1985, Jávor bought his own camera and got a license for photographing a filmmaking: “an era of self-employment started for me,” he recalled. Compared to the prevailing circumstances in Hungary, his equipment was top-of-the-line. Jávor initially recorded art events, often close to the opposition, such as the events of the Talentum company held at the Vigadó Culture Palace. However, Jávor wanted to say more and, especially or rather more accurately about the conditions in Hungary, so he turned towards social and political issues and started the samizdat video magazine Fekete Doboz (Black Box) in 1987.Many of Jávor’s photos are already available at Fortepan, and since 2015 the Index.hu online news portal has regularly published thematic compilations of his photographs. Thus, along with many other pictures, his photos taken during his trips to America and parts of Transcarpathia were made public, as were photos from the shooting of the legendary Megáll az idő (Time Stands Still, 1981).
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- Budapest, Hungary
Author(s) of this page
- Mravik, Patrik
- Scheibner, Tamás