The Beginning of the Age of the AK
The first mass market portable camera was invented by George Eastman in 1888. It used celluloid film to allow everyday people to capture everyday moments in their lives. Anyone could document anything. Eastman changed the world. He democratized it. He flattened command structures all around the world with his invention. Now normal people could participate in photography, a hobby which had been reserved for the rich and powerful. Eastman’s camera and celluloid film are celebrated in songs and pop culture, into the 21st century. Photography could hold the powerful to account, documenting horrible working conditions and crimes. But photography could also be used against the common man, in propaganda, and in improving the surveillance capabilities of the secret police who oppressed citizens.
Soviet Lieutenant General Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov changed the world in 1949, but with an assault rifle, instead of a camera. The AK-47 allowed individual soldiers to change the course of battles. Kalashnikov shook the world. A squad of soldiers could have the ability to produce as much firepower as platoons or even companies of the previous generation’s troops. But even bigger changed occurred after the AK-47 fell into the hands of insurgents. Untrained insurgents could stand toe-to-toe with the finest militaries in the world and defeat them. The AK-47 is so ubiquitous that it is featured on national flags on multiple continents. There is AK-47 vodka, songs about the AK-47 on the pop charts, and silicon AK-47 ice molds. Like photography, the AK-47 in the hand of an insurgent was a double edged sword – it could be used by terrorists to exterminate populations, or by freedom fighters to combat oppression.
Although it was Kodak himself who took the first series of photos with his camera, the first insurgent to be documented using the AK-47 wasn’t Kalashnikov, but József Tibor Fejes. And Fejes was photographed using the AK-47 against Kalashnikov’s Soviet Army. Fejes was a 22-year old Hungarian insurgent who took part in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. He had a flair for the dramatic, and no matter how he was dressed, he always wore a bowler hat, leading to his nickname “Keménykalapos,” meaning “The Man in the Bowler Hat.” Fejes fought as part of the Corvin Group or Corvinites, named after the position the held defending the Corvin Cinema, which was the temporary headquarters of Hungarian Revolutionary Leader László Iván Kovács.
The Corvinites held against insurmountable odds for 15 days. During these days they fought, but also posed for photographers. The posing would prove to be Fejes’ undoing. He returned home after the Corvin Theater fell on 5 November 1956. He might have gone unremembered, but the Hungarian secret police used photographs to identify him. Fejes was executed on 9 April 1959, one of the 253 Hungarians killed for defying the Soviets, but also the first AK insurgent.
To read more about the Hungarian Revolution 0f 1956, visit our series here.