Why I don’t have pictures from when the Wall came down

Photoschule

It was Marlies who taught me that taking pictures secretly was immoral. According to Marlies, being a photographer required discipline: holiday shots were ridiculed, each frame requiring tension and a constant reflection on morality.

It was the second half of the Eighties, I lived in West Berlin and belonged to a circle of militant photographers who deemed even the Düsseldorfer Photoschule as too mainstream.

Marlies Martins was my teacher, friend and mentor. We only took black and white pictures, while Marlies created haunting landscapes photographing minuscule figurines from close up against organic materials.

We met once a week in a Volkshochschule in Kreutzberg, outside school hours, sharing our best shots and discussing whether giving a title to a picture forced an interpretation on the viewer, and was therefore fascist.

I had two cameras: a Nikon F305 and a Minox. Marlies had recommended the Minox. It had been incredibly expensive on my part-time job, but it was my pride. Compact enough to slip inside a pocket, it was equipped with the best handmade Zeiss lenses. Its best asset was that it took pictures already from 70 cm, the length of the arm. Marlies was also big on self-portraits taken with an outstretched arm.

When the Wall came down I didn’t take any of my cameras with me. The night of the 9th November I was carried by the crowd like everybody else along Straße des 17. Juni and Ku’damm and everywhere, and not for once was I tempted to use my camera. I didn’t take pictures in the following days either, nor in the weeks and months that followed. Because you don’t take pictures without first understanding what is happening.

I never regretted it, just like I don’t regret not having carved a piece of the Wall. Souvenirs are for tourists. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t safeguarded the images of those days securely in my mind.

Picture #1 The first Trabant that I saw in West Berlin, in Kant Strasse. The news of the Wall had just started to circulate. I was going to meet my friend to see what was happening. The Trabant advanced at uncertain speed along Kant Strasse, out of place like a giant Lego model.

Picture #2 Families hypnotized by the shop windows of Kurfusterndamm, disoriented like rabbits in front of car beams, palms stretched across the pristine glass, eyes wide open, looking at Mercedes, BMWs, jewels, furs, luxury items.

Picture #3 A woman at a fruit stand in Wilmersdorfer Straße. She looks at me and finally finds the courage to point at a kiwi and asks me what it is, how you eat it, what it tastes like.

Picture #4 A car driving the streets of the newly liberated East Berlin, it has a huge sign on the roof, it reads “I buy anything old”.

Picture #5 Piles of copies of Das Kapital and Das Manifest towering at the corner of the streets of East Berlin, together with cheap framed portraits of Erich Honecker and Egon Krenz.

Picture #6 Wolfgang’s huge beard. With his 100 Deutsche Mark Begrüßungsgeld (welcome money for East Germans), Wolfgang bought a camera and joined Marlies’ photo school. Wolfgang told us how he spent 20 years in jail because the Stasi had found a typewriter in his home.

Picture #7 A performance of Die Dreigroschenoper by the Berliner Ensemble less than a month after the Wall. East Berliner actors sing “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral”, ‘first comes food, then morality’, on a sparse stage still dressed with DDR props. People in the audience cry.

Picture #8 People avoiding your gaze in the streets of East Berlin, head still bent in fear of the Stasi, months after the Wall.

Picture #9 The hundred of cranes invading the skylight of East Berlin.

Picture #10 The Tränenpalast (palace of tears), the place where people leaving East Berlin at check point Friedrichstraße said their last goodbyes, transformed into a ballroom.

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