All images courtesy the artist and Loop gallery.

Inside East Berlin’s Humungous Cold War Surveillance Archive

Photographer Adrian Fish documents East Germany’s civilian surveillance program in images that are as simple as they are disturbing.

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Apr 30 2017, 12:05pm

All images courtesy the artist and Loop gallery.

It's hard to imagine a government spying on nearly every detail of its citizens' lives before the internet existed, but East Germany managed to pull it off. The analog archives of what might be history's most extensive government surveillance system are documented in Adrian Fish's photo series Deutsche Demokratische Republik: The Stasi Archives. 

In Berlin's Friedrichshain district, the former headquarters of the Ministry for State Security (shortened to Stasi in German) takes up several city blocks. The main task of the so-called State Security was spying on the East German population, trying to root out class enemies and capitalist dissidents. This mass surveillance was carried out via a huge network of civilian informers. Neighbors informed on neighbors, and any phone could be wiretapped. With over 90,000 full time employees, and a vast number of unofficial informers (estimates suggest as many as one informer for every 6.5 civilians), the Stasi collected a dizzying amount of data on the GDR's population.

In a time when computers were just beginning to shrink down to an office-appropriate size, this meant entire buildings were dedicated to storing paper files. These extensive archives still exist, preserved in climate-controlled halls. They remain off-limits to the public, but former citizens of the GDR can request to see their own files. The Stasi offices have also been carefully preserved, right down to the heavy curtains in the windows and the overstuffed meeting room chairs. The building is now a museum.

Fish, a Canadian photographer, became interested in the former East Germany while visiting Berlin. He was granted permission to photograph the Stasi archive, as well as the neatly maintained private offices and meeting rooms of the Stasi Museum.

"I'm very much interested in the idea of failed systems and failed states," Fish says. "One of the very unique things about the fall of the German Democratic Republic is that it fell almost overnight." This means that while East Germany no longer exists, much of its architecture remains. At the former Stasi headquarters, which was stormed by angry crowds when the GDR government collapsed in late 1989, employees left so quickly that their offices don't really feel abandoned.

A selection of nine images from Fish's Deutsche Demokratische Republik: The Stasi Archive, is currently showing at Toronto's Loop Gallery until May 14, as part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. One wall of the exhibition displays images from the archives, and the opposite wall depicts the office spaces of the Stasi Museum. The contrast between the photographs of the archives and conference rooms is less stark than you might expect. There's an oddly human feel to the archives, with their neatly hand-lettered labels and secret, intimate contents. The landscape of bureaucracy feels less personal, all shiny desktops and immaculate carpets.

Fish's work recalls Lynne Cohen's photography, in its straightforward composition and ability to make the most everyday interiors feel deeply strange. Of course, the Stasi headquarters are not just any office. But, in Fish's photos, they look that way. And for many of the regular GDR people who worked there, that's what the Ministry for State Security was—just another office, "where bureaucrats were just making very everyday decisions," as Fish puts it. But, he adds, "Those decisions affected people's lives. They ruined lives." By drawing attention to the mundane nature of state surveillance in the GDR, Fish makes this history feel all the more real.

Adrian Fish's Deutsche Demokratische Republik: The Stasi Archives is showing at Toronto's Loop Gallery until May 14, as part of the 2017 Contact Photography Festival.

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