Images from the Secret Stasi Archives
or: what does Big Brother see, while he is watching?
× Images from the Secret Stasi Archives

First of all, I am dumping quite a lot of material here, not because this is the way I would present my work in a show, but rather since I think that is very important to make as much material accessible as possible.

Surveillance has been a widely discussed topic for many years. During my detailed research into the subject, however, I have come to realize that the public has only very limited access to picture material showing the act of surveillance from the perspective of the surveillant. We are naturally all familiar with the blurred images taken by surveillance cameras and occasionally released to the media, for example in conjunction with police investigations. Yet there is still a large gray area, which is often spoken about but of which little is tangible. This might possibly explain the great interest that is aroused when something that was intended to remain concealed actually surfaces, for example the video that acquired much notoriety under the title Collateral Murder, which was published in April 2010 on the Wikileaks website. It is obvious that much more surveillance material must exist; what is not obvious, however, is what the Orwellian “Big Brother” in fact gets to see when he is watching us.

Given Germany’s relatively recent history, it seems surprising that not more material has been made available to contribute to the discussion. The German Democratic Republic’s Ministry for State Security (Stasi) was one of the most effective surveillance apparatuses ever. Proportionally to the size of its population, the East German Stasi had far more agents working for it than the KGB or the CIA. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany most of its archives were opened to the public. While there are some restrictions, access to the Stasi documents is unprecedented and unique among the former Eastern Bloc countries. In fact there is still nothing comparable with it in the West today.

Over a period of two years, I was able to research this intelligence service’s visual legacy in the archive of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives of the former German Democratic Republic (BStU), which now administers the Stasi documents. While I was aware beforehand that I would find picture material among the documents, the quantity and breadth of the images I was able to unearth with the assistance of the archive’s staff was surprising, even to me.

Many of the images reproduced here might appear absurd or even funny to us. But it is important not to lose sight of the original intentions behind these pictures. They concern photographic records of the repression exerted by the state to subdue it own citizens. For me, the banality of some of these pictures makes them even more repulsive. All too many of the images are open to a wide range of interpretations and consequently to being instrumentalized according to the suspicions of those whose job it was to interpret them. For example the photograph of a Siemens coffeemaker: it is a West German consumer product that as such can be seen as evidence for contacts with Western agents or merely as a present from relatives. The difference can mean years in prison. I believe that this also demonstrates one of the fundamental problems and limitations inherent to any and all form of surveillance.

The presentation of most of the pictures reproduced here is naturally a two-edged sword to the extent that many of them represent undue intrusion into the private lives of the observed subjects. It must be asked whether reproducing them here repeats the intrusion, renewing the injustices committed all those years ago. While I am aware of this problem, I also firmly believe that the pictures make an important contribution to the discussion concerning the nature of state-sanctioned surveillance systems.

The material I was permitted to see in the archive of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives in fact represents only a fraction of what is stored there. Many of the archived pictures have not been inspected since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Studies dealing with the East German system multiply on the occasion of anniversaries commemorating the events surrounding the building and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a certain amount of attention is focused in the process on the Stasi. Nonetheless too little has been done to provide a visual account of the activities carried out by the Ministry for State Security. This is a task for which artists and cultural scientists are perhaps better suited than historians in order to unambiguously underscore the links to present-day society. The archives of the Ministry for State Security should be seen as an opportunity to look inside a world that operates in secret. Even now, a generation after the fall of the Iron Curtain, a publication like the present one featuring images from the archives of the CIA, the KGB or the West German Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), is still wholly unimaginable.




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