Life in Berlin: Secrets From The Stasi Archives

Oct 5, 2015

On a late summer afternoon at the Goethe Institut in Washington DC, visual artist Simon Menner begins to address a small group of people. Behind him, two grainy, black and white photographs of a busy street are being projected onto a screen.

"My name is Simon Menner. I'm a visual artist. My work pretty much focuses on the nature of images, how images are used and utilized - very often against us."

It's the latest in a long string of exhibit openings and lectures he's given about his research in the photographic archives of the former East German secret police, or the Stasi.

Menner's initial interest in the photographs didn't come from historical curiosity, he says, but rather the renewed dialogue about surveillance brought on by the recent NSA revelations.

"Very often, I came across the topic of surveillance," he explains,  "and as a German I came to realize that I'm in a wonderful position: That with the fall of the Berlin Wall 26 years ago, one archive remained of Big Brother in operation - and that was the archive of the East German Stasi."

Menner wasn't interested in surveillance photos that  people would typically expect to see, he tells the group as he flips past images taken of people in busy streets and in front of foreign embassies, but rather how the Stasi worked and operated.

He now flips to a photo of a man in a comically large fur hat and matching coat with sunglasses and a mustache. It's obvious that the man is in disguise. As Menner explains that it's part of an official tutorial on disguises, the audience begins to laugh.
 

Detail of a reproduced Polaroid photograph showing the contents of a drawer, shot by a member of the Stasi before conducting a search/surveillance operation in an apartment, at German artist Simon Menner's exhibition and book 'Top Secret: Images from the Secret Stasi Archives.'
Credit John MacDougall / AFP / Getty Images

"We are all laughing about these images, but we have to keep in mind that this was meant seriously and they were fully aware that this looks ridiculous," he says. "But they knew it's much more efficient if you let the society know that you are there so you've forced them to put control over themselves. If you put out some two, three, four ridiculous looking Stasi agents, still that gives you the feeling that somebody else might be there that you missed."

Of course, not all of the photos Menner found in the archives were so comical or obvious. The next picture he shows is the one he describes as "the most terrible."

"On one side, it's a picture of an unmade bed, but it's far more than that," he tells the group. "It's a far more terrible image because it's also the picture of an unmade bed before it's been thoroughly searched."
 
He explains that when Stasi agents would break into people's homes, which Menner says was unconstitutional in itself, they would take a snapshot of  the room so they could return everything back to their original positions without the owners noticing. An act he says very much mirrors the reality of surveillance today.

"So they broke the law to protect the law, which sounds all too familiar nowadays."

Menner eventually published some of the most interesting photographs he found in a book called Top Secret: Images From the Stasi Archives.