Simon Menner – Pictures from the Secret STASI Archives

Simon Menner has always been fascinated by pictures that can be decoded in a variety of ways, yielding entirely different results. One picture seems to show us a simple tangible object, and yet the object is changed fundamentally and continuously by what the viewer knows about it and what the viewer expects to see. On a personal level this might not have such a decisive influence. But perception is not limited to the personal level; it also plays a decisive role in surveillance.

The Berlin-based photographer Simon Menner has dealt extensively with the subject of surveillance, and his research here has led him to conclude that there isn’t much available pictorial material showing the activity of surveillance from the perspective of those doing the surveillance rather than those under surveillance. Of course we are all familiar with the blurry images of surveillance cameras; but Menner suspected that there must be more. He was intrigued by the question of what the Orwellian ‘Big Brother’ sees when he has us under observation.

It is indeed astonishing that this field has not attracted more research, particularly here in Germany. After all, the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) was home to the State Security Service (STASI)—one of the largest surveillance apparatuses in history. Relative to the size of the population, the East German STASI had far more agents than the KGB or the CIA. After the wall dividing Germany was torn down most of the archive materials were opened to the public, and although access to these documents is subject to certain limitations, the sheer scope of this access is unparalleled among all the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. Even in the West, nothing like this exists. So it was only natural that Simon Menner approached the authorities responsible for storing the STASI archives with his request to see more. The authorities proved to be both kind and helpful. Menner received permission to sift through the photos at the archive and to make several reproductions.

Among the first things to catch his eye were the photos the STASI agents took while they were clandestinely searching people’s homes. The residents were not aware that their apartments or houses were being searched; indeed, many found out about it only after the fall of the wall. Whenever STASI agents searched someone’s flat, they first took pictures of the entire apartment to make sure they would be able to put everything back where it belonged before they left. Thus the photo of an unmade bed is actually a photo of an unmade bed before it was searched.

Many of these snapshots seem absurd; they may even be amusing. And yet we ought not to loose sight of the intention that led the STASI agents to take them. These photographs document the repressive measures taken by a totalitarian state in order to create terror and fear among the population. For Simon Menner, the banality of some of these images makes the horror he feels all the more poignant. They seem to be open to just about any interpretation, and thus they can be easily exploited as repressive instruments by agents who choose to make use of them. To take one example: a photo of a Siemens coffee machine. This product of a West German manufacturer could serve as evidence of contacts to West German agents, although it might simply have been a gift from relatives in the West. The interpretation could thus result in several years in prison. Here the fundamental restrictions implicit in any form of surveillance are apparent.

Perhaps the most disconcerting photos Menner found—when he began his research, he had no idea such  things existed—were the photographs made by STASI spies photographing other spies. Among the allied powers there were small units who were allowed to move freely between East and West Germany: the Military Liaison Missions (MLM). Both sides to the East and West considered these ‘Missions’ an ideal opportunity to spy on each other. Whenever a unit of MLM soldiers travelled through East Germany, the STASI did their best to observe them. Each side was well aware of the fact that the other side knew what they were up to. And that’s exactly what we see in these photos: an endless circle of reciprocal awareness. In Simon Menner’s opinion, this is a prototypical image of the Cold War. And that is why the artist is currently investigating whether comparable photographs are extant in the archives of the Western allies. Exhibited together, they would reveal the closed circularity of these activities.

The portraits of obviously disguised men document STASI agents participating in a course on the ‘art of disguising’. They represent what these agents considered to be an inconspicuous appearance. And although the contemporary viewer may find these images rather ludicrous, they, too, record the measures the state used to repress its own population.

Many of these images testify to an outrageous invasion of privacy perpetrated against those under surveillance. They raise the question whether this invasion of privacy ought to be repeated at a public presentation of the photos. Simon Menner is aware of this problem, but he firmly believes that it is important to exhibit these photos in order to stimulate public discussion. The discussion should not—in his opinion—merely deal with the activities of the STASI; rather, it should attempt to answer the broader questions raised by surveillance.

The photos Simon Menner was allowed to see in the STASI archive actually represent only a tiny fraction of the photos remaining there. Many of the snapshots he saw have not been looked at again since 1989. But each new decade’s anniversary of the fall of the wall and of German reunification brings with it, as one might well expect, yet another explosion of studies dedicated to the former East German state. And of course the State Security—as the “State within the State” spearheading the totalitarian repression—was at the centre of most people’s interest. However, to date no one has attempted anything like a visual study of the activities of the State Security. In Simon Menner’s opinion, this is more a task for artists and philosophers than for historians, since in this case the relevance for contemporary society ought to be accentuated. The State Security archives should be seen as an opportunity to gain insight into a secretly operating world. A similar study within the archives of the CIA or the NSA would be utterly impossible.