Stefanie Rothenhöfer chats to Berlin photographer Philipp Lohöfener about his work at Hohenschönhausen, Berlin’s Stasi prison memorial.
Philipp Lohöfener was born in 1974 in Bielefeld, Germany. He studied photography at the University of Applied Sciences in Bielefeld, Germany from 1998 till 2006.
In 2010 Lohöfener won first place in the Sony World Photography Awards (Category Fine Art/Architecture 2011), and recently bagged 4th place at the Art of Photography Show, 4th Place, San Diego/USA. He has been living and working in Berlin since 2001. Over the last few years, Lohöfener’s work has focused on depicting the resonant presence in seemingly deserted places.
His series of images taken at Hohenschönhausen, the former prison used to house detainees of the East German State Security (‘Stasi’) are particularly striking, managing to capture the atmosphere of cold horror that characterised the place, and which still hangs in the air today.
“The goal of Hohenschönhausen prison staff was to destabilize prisoners in order to generate a feeling of total powerlessness,” says the photographer. “Prisoners were never informed as to where they were being held and were essentially sealed off from the outside world. To incapacitate them further, they were also kept in strict isolation from their fellow prisoners. The effect of such conditions was to break down the prisoners so that they felt totally at the mercy of an almighty state authority.”
The prison has been a Memorial since 1994 and, from 2000 on, has been an independent Foundation under public law. The Berlin state government has assigned the Foundation without charge. The Foundation’s work is supported by an annual contribution from the Federal Government and the Berlin state government.
What inspired you to begin the Hohenschönhausen project?
My work deals a lot with cultural and political historical places. I first visited the the Stasi prison Hohenschönhausen on a guided tour and was immediately fascinated by the history and atmosphere.
How did you manage to get access to the prison for this work? Was it easy or difficult?
That was actually pretty easy. I contacted their press office and showed them my portfolio. As they liked my work and the project idea, I got the permission to take pictures even in rooms that were closed to the public.
What was your knowledge or experience of the prison before you started the project?
I knew that the Stasi had an investigation prison in Berlin; this became public when the wall came down in 1989. When I had the idea for the project I started to research more about it.
You accessed a lot of buildings not accessible to the public — which ones did you find most interesting?
I was surprised and irritated at the same time that they had a sauna area for the employees. The idea of guards and interrogators relaxing here after work, caused discomfort in me.
What did you learn about the prison while you were working on it, that you did not know before?
I was shocked to learn more about the methods the Stasi used. People were imprisoned for such reasons as trying to leave the country, or telling political jokes. Prisoners were kept isolated, disoriented and tortured and were systematically given the feeling of being totally at the mercy of an almighty state authority.
There was a time at Hohenschönhausen where an endless amount of inmates awaited their judgement. What did you feel when photographing these empty rooms, and what emotions do you intend to evoke with these images?
It is hard to imagine what prisoners had to go through being detained in Hohenschönhausen. When I was taking the photographs I tried to concentrate on the picture and to free myself from the oppressiveness. The prison itself evokes the emotions and each room tells its own story. My intention was to preserve history.
The includes photographs of cells, surveillance instruments, offices and many other gloomy rooms. What touched you the most while working there?
While photographing one of the interrogation rooms, a man, about 50 years old, stepped in and I found out that he was detained till the wall came down. This was his first visit after 20 years. When he told me about his imprisonment he broke down and started to cry, telling me that he will never forget the smell, the wallpapers, the curtains; he said he didn’t know if he would kill his former interrogator, if he would see him in the streets. This was my most personal moment in the building.
What other Berlin institutions would you like to photograph next, or are you already working on that?
At the moment I´m not working on any Berlin-specific projects. I am working on a project about tourism, but my focus will be the documentary architecture here as well.
Is Berlin a good place to be a photographer?
I moved to Berlin about 10 years ago. The first years were not very easy for me. I did not know where to start, where I belonged, where my place could be. At the same time it felt like home. I think Berlin is a good place for a photographer. The city is inspiring, a lot is constantly changing and you can feel history everywhere. I like to walk through the streets at night, everything seems to be less hectic and less busy and less stressful – somehow more reduced. Sometimes I find a spot which seems to be interesting for me, sometimes I just pursue my thoughts, sometimes I wander around with no aim. Often a view out of the tram, S-bahn or bus is enough to get an idea for another project.
Where do you live in Berlin and what are your favourite “slow” things to do?
I’m based in Prenzlauer Berg and my favourite place to be besides various park benches, is the Olivin sauna at Pfefferberg.
Tours of the prison (groups only) can be arranged via the information below. They are usually led by former inmates, who provide first-hand details on prison conditions and the interrogation methods employed by the GDR’s Ministry of State Security (MfS). English speaking tours take place daily at 14.30. You can see more of Lohöfener’s Hohenschönhausen images (and more) at his website.
S 75: Gehrenseestr.
T: 030 98 60 82 30 / 32