Johana Kasalicka’s ongoing series of portraits explores the evolution of her hometown and the city’s thriving youth culture
Five years ago, Johana Kasalicka swapped her hometown of Prague for London during her studies, which resulted in a series documenting Central and Eastern European youth living in the UK capital. Returning home each summer to visit friends and family, Kasalicka began to witness a shifting landscape in Prague’s architecture, its residents and their collective outlook. New art galleries, cultural hubs and cafes began to appear and liberal attitudes were being embraced by the younger generation. “I started to notice differences that resonated with me,” Kasalicka tells Dazed.
These cultural shifts have become the foundation of Kasalicka’s ongoing series – a documentation of the daily life of the city’s youth culture and its young vanguards leading the change. Her subjects are friends and acquaintances she’s streetcasted at raves or met within the creative sphere, captured in the sanctity of their homes amidst traditional Eastern European decor and architecture. Shot in an intimate style of portraiture, the photographer strives to unravel the nuances that define this generation’s identity, as well as her own. “Are they happy in Prague, my hometown, that I once left with hopes of finding a better life in ‘the West’?” she muses. “I hoped to find the answers through the personal stories and perspectives of these people; whether the city, country or mentality of people and politics have started to shift and whether it’s maybe time for me to come back.”
In one image, Kasalicka photographed Bystrik, who moved to Prague from a village in Slovakia, drawn by the city’s cultural and art scene, plus the LGBTQ+ community he would later surround himself with. He poses triumphantly against his desk, a stern hand placed on the hip and wearing a versatile ensemble: an oversized shirt, mini skirt, socks and sliders. With an unflinching look into the lens, the image conveys strength and positivity. Meanwhile, Peter, who’s Vietnamese-Czech and works in fashion and costume, shares his experiences with xenophobia and his hopes to move out of the city. He’s documented with a paintbrush in tow, etching colourful outlines of a face onto a canvas. You can’t see his own face, but the watchful eye on the painting, often deemed as a symbol of truth and protection, infuses the image with a deep sense of purpose.
Through this compelling series, Kasalicka not only shares the real-life stories of Prague’s inhabitants and their quest to redefine tradition, but she also strives to dismantle stereotypes. In an image of Vlad and Robi, they’re caught in a gaze, reminiscent of the “resting bitch face” that Kasalicka says is often portrayed as an Eastern European trait. “This image depicts this stereotype perfectly and feels very real – Eastern Europeans are well known for their honesty and unpretentiousness,” she explains. The juxtaposition of traditional decor and their clothing, along with an LGBTQ+ flag pinned on the window behind them, works to challenge preconceptions about their identities. “It almost looks like an image from an activist campaign, which represents the vibe of the whole series.”
For Kasalicka, the city’s thriving youth culture and queer scene is not only a barometer of change but a crucial aspect of the driving force behind Prague’s transformation. Yet, looking beyond the city’s borders, the trauma of the Iron Curtain still lingers. “I realise [Prague] is just a bubble,” she says. Nevertheless, for the first time since leaving, she has felt the lure of her hometown – a place she may return to one day. “With all the benefits that London brings to my life, I still miss my home. And, to be honest, sometimes I am just tired of being an immigrant, a minority and constantly trying to fit in,” Johana finishes. “Looking at my friends working in arts and culture, I am honestly questioning if I would be able to find a fulfilling job that would pay enough money. I think my time in London will come to an end one day, but not yet.”