Simon Menner: Images from the secret STASI archives

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I am very much interested in images that can be decoded on several layers with different results. For instance I took a series of pictures of objects that have been used in real murder cases to kill people. So a knife in this series can be seen simply as a knife or as something that goes far beyond. Both seems to be true. But it is very difficult, if not impossible, to approach both layers simultaneously. (more)

The question that fascinates me here is one about the way our perception works. Images show us something but we keep altering this “something” all the time. This entirely happens in the mind. Then how can we then ever fully trust images? Photography is my medium of choice for working on this topic since it still seems to be the most trustworthy.

This alteration of course is not limited to a private level. It also affects those who are involved in surveillance. And here I believe it gets really tricky.

I spent a lot of time researching on surveillance but I realized that there are actually not that many images accessible that show the act of surveillance from the point of view of the observer. Sure, we all know what an image taken by a surveillance camera looks like, nevertheless I thought that there must be more than this. In a catchphrase: I was wondering, if Big Brother watches you, what does he see?

As a German, living in Berlin, I realized that I am in the perfect position to dig somewhat deeper. East Germany, until it ceased to exist in 1989/90, had on of the most advanced surveillance system ever in operation, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Department of State Security) or STASI. In terms of number of agents per capita it even outranked the Russian KGB by far.

Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was decided that most of its archive should be made accessible to the public and for historic research. Even though the access is restricted, this was very much in contrast to what most of the other nations of the former Eastern Block did. One has to keep in mind that this is a full scale secret service such as the CIA whose archives are now open for research.

I approached the public agency that is now responsible for the care of these incredibly vast archives with a proposal for a project and I was granted the opportunity to have some images reproduced for my use as an artist.

Pretty much the first thing I was interested in seeing were images taken by STASI agents while searching through private apartments. These searches have been performed secretly, mostly while those living in the apartment were working. The first thing the agents did was to take Polaroid images of the whole apartment in order to put everything back into its original position after they performed the search. The picture that shows a unmade bed shows in fact a unmade bed before it is searched through.

Many of these images might appear absurd or even funny. But it is very important to understand the intention behind them. It was a extremely repressive system that caused terror through its secret service. There is also something in these images that really frightens me. Some of them are very open for interpretation. Take the coffee maker for instance. It is a West German product and therefore it could be seen as a sign for contacts to western agents or it could be seen as a gift by relatives in the west. The difference was merely a decade spent in jail or not. I believe it shows somewhat the general limitations of surveillance.

The images of men in costumes were taken during a seminar for STASI agents on how to dress up. It might look ridiculous indeed but it shows how they thought someone appears inconspicuously.

Maybe the weirdest thing I came across so far – and I had no idea that something like this might exist – are the images of spies taking pictures of spies. Some small units within the Alied Forces were theoretically free to move within all of Germany. This was seen by both sides (east and west) as a wonderful opportunity for espionage. Whenever a small group of soldiers drove in their car through East Germany STASI agents tried to follow them. Both sides were fully aware that the other side was fully aware of their presence and this is exactly what these images show. An endless circle or awareness. I believe this is a wonderful allegory for the Cold War. Currently I am researching whether some of their counterparts still exist in western archives.

The images I was able to look at are just a tiny fraction of what actually exists in these archives. Actually many images have never been looked at since 1989. I am fully aware that there is a whole number of historians who are dealing with the history of the STASI but so far I think that there is a lack in something like a visual approach. I think that a full scale research and presentation should be performed by someone – not necessarily me. Not so much because these are images that represent the STASI but rather they can give us an idea of how intelligence agencies function in general. Something that normally remains hidden. Imagine such a project within the archives of the CIA or NSA. Sounds impossible.