German Exhibit Reveals Secret Spy Photos

Originally published on May 23, 2012 11:33 am

The Stasi, or East German secret police, were notorious as one of the most repressive and feared institutions of the East German Communist government — and they left behind an unsettling record. Images include Stasi agents in various disguises as they participated in training in the "art of disguise." Without any context, they are almost amusing. But, as photographer Simon Menner writes, the photos "document the repressive measures taken by a totalitarian state in order to create terror and fear among the population."

Menner usually takes photos. He has also done substantial research on surveillance, which is what got him interested in the Stasi archive to begin with. So when he came across these undated portraits, he couldn't resist sharing them. He has curated an exhibition at Berlin's Morgen Contemporary, timed appropriately with Saturday's 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall.

In short, the wall was built in 1961 by the East Germans, effectively cutting West Berlin off from East Germany and East Berlin — and ultimately symbolizing the Cold War. During that time, the Stasi depended heavily on surveillance, watching foreigners and citizens alike. Almost every aspect of East German life was under close observation, and the Stasi kept extensive records of everything they saw.

After the fall of the wall in 1989, the new, reunified German government created a federal agency, which was tasked with keeping track of the Stasi archives. Those secret files, which include these pictures, were then made available to the public.

In addition to the disguise photos, the files also contain Polaroids of homes prior to being secretly searched. Agents used the photos to make sure everything was put back in place, thus keeping the residents unaware that the Stasi had been there. Many found out only after the fall of the wall.

Menner was only 11 years old when the when the wall came down. Having grown up in West Germany — and with no family in the east — Menner wasn't particularly interested in what had gone on in East Germany. But his fascination with photography and with the idea of surveillance piqued his interest in the former German Democratic Republic.

For Menner, who has researched the subject of surveillance extensively, the Stasi files, especially the photographs, are a gold mine. They provide a glimpse of the other side of surveillance: a rare view of the watchers, rather than the watched.

"The thing about surveillance," he explains, "is that there are actually not that many sources available that can show us 'the gaze of Big Brother.' Part of the nature of surveillance is the aspect of secrecy, and therefore most results of surveillance are kept under lock and key. Just imagine a project such as mine with images from the CIA archives — sounds pretty improbable."

Menner received permission to reproduce some of these photos, which are now on display in Berlin, in an exhibition titled "Pictures from the Secret Stasi Archives."

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