A blog on social / public issues and cultural life in Catalonia, Spain and wider Europe.
Saturday, August 26, 2017
Images from the Stasi secret police files (of then East Germany)
While conducting research on surveillance, I realized that the public has very limited access to images showing the act of surveillance from the perspective of the surveillant. What actually is it that the Orwellian “Big Brother” gets to see when he is watching us?
For over two and a half years, I applied this question to materials from the former East Germany’s Ministry for State Security, commonly known as the Stasi, which had become publicly available after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Stasi was one of the most effective surveillance apparatuses ever. The quantity and breadth of the images I was able to unearth was surprising: images documenting Stasi agents being trained in hand signals, or perfecting the art of disguise; Polaroids taken during clandestine searches of people’s homes, to ensure everything could be put back where it belonged; photographs made by Stasi spies photographing other spies.
Many of the images shown here might appear absurd or even funny to us. But it is important not to lose sight of the original intentions behind these pictures—photographic records of the repression exerted by the state to subdue its own citizens. The banality of some of these pictures makes them even more repulsive. Many of the images are open to wide interpretation and could feed or confirm the suspicions of the Stasi agents viewing them. For example, the photograph of a Siemens coffeemaker: Is this West German consumer product evidence of contacts with Western agents? Or merely a present from relatives? The difference can mean years in prison, demonstrating one of the fundamental problems and limitations inherent to any and all forms of surveillance.
Presenting most of these pictures can be a double-edged sword. Many represent an undue intrusion into people’s private lives. Does reproducing them repeat the intrusion and renew injustices committed years ago? I grappled with this difficult issue and concluded that the pictures should be presented because they make an important contribution to discussions about state-sanctioned surveillance systems.