Sunday, August 7, 2011

What do you see?

At first glance, there's nothing particularly ominous or significant about the above image. It looks like a random 1980s snapshot of some guy in cheesy 1980s clothes . . . being a tourist? Making fun of tourists? Making fun of himself for being a tourist?

The man depicted in this photograph was actually employed by the East German secret police, commonly known as the Stasi. The photograph itself is one of a series of photographs in the Stasi archives, which are now open to the public, documenting an "art of disguising" course for Stasi employees who spied on their fellow citizens. These images are featured in "Pictures from the Secret Stasi Archives," a new Berlin exhibit by artist Simon Menner.

The image above may seem risible, but it's really not: among other things, the Stasi imprisoned and executed dissidents and spied on millions of ordinary people. The "art of disgusing" photographs, a sampling of which Der Spiegel has made available, are accompanied by dozens of photographs that Stasi personnel took while clandestinely searching the homes of their fellow citizens -- so that they would be able to put everything back in place before they left.

In 1992, citizens of the former East Germany were granted the right to view their own files; to date, almost 2.75 million people have done so. At present, 1,800 German government employees are responsible for caring for the archives and reconstituting records that Stasi employees shredded as their world collapsed in 1989.

Look again at the above photograph. Now that you know about the circumstances that led to its creation, what do you see? Do you enjoy looking at it? Are you glad that you can look at it?

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