Paul Sullivan talks to legendary GDR photographer Harald Hauswald about his life and work in East Berlin…
The grey, dismal atmosphere of 1980s East Berlin asserts itself even beyond the monochrome aesthetic of Harald Hauswald’s famous black and white photographs. Lone figures stroll grim-faced along empty Prenzlauer Berg streets. Exhausted workers deliver coal to the neighbourhood’s poorly heated, crumbling tenements. A small boy sits in the driver seat of a burnt-out Trabant in a desolate courtyard, rubble piled high in the foreground; presumably he finds his surroundings completely normal.
Hauswald’s images of the GDR’s state apparatus also possess the kind of joyless sterility familiar from such imagery: the starchily formal military parades and public FDJ (Free German Youth) events, the demos and protest marches, the sinister concrete watchtowers and never-ending construction projects.
Contrasting with these bleak scenes are Hauswald’s captures of the area’s dissident subcultures—surly squatters, spiky-haired punks, snogging teens—that didn’t officially exist in East Germany, as well as images that showcase the photographer’s fine sense of irony and humour, and prompt regular smirks and chuckles from the exhibition’s visitors: romantic couples, arm-in-arm, surrounded by a sea of sparkling Trabants; a sign claiming ‘our diversity is great!” above a shop selling a desultory ensemble of kitchen goods; a beaming child on a carousel that, upon closer inspection, isn’t riding a giraffe or a unicorn, but a military tank.
“In reality this documentary approach was the only type of photography we could do in East Germany,” points out Hauswald as he leads us—myself, C/O Berlin chief curator Felix Hoffmann, and his filmmaker friend Leander Hausmann, known for his cult movie Sonnenallee—on a personal tour through his exhibition, “Voll das Leben!” (”Full of Life!)”, picking out random images and regaling us with anecdotes and back-stories.
“We always shot in black and white, not because we wanted to copy the classic reportage photographers, but because that was the best and cheapest film available; colour film in the GDR was more expensive and poorer quality. Private and public life was also somewhat blurred, and we had more time for this kind of work…our regular jobs were usually quite relaxed whereas in West Berlin or West Germany there was generally more work pressure, and less time to pursue hobbies.”
Hauswald is exactly what you might expect from an East Berliner—wholly unpretentious, forthright, not prone to fancy airs or hyperbole. With his long grey hair pulled into a pony tail, glasses perched professorially on the end of his nose rather than directly in front of his pale blue eyes, and casual clothing (zip-up jumper, light outdoor jacket, jeans), he cuts a largely inconspicuous figure as he leads us through what is his biggest retrospective exhibition to date.
Despite the wall-sized photo of him as a youth at the entrance of the exhibition, looking handsome and hippyish with what was then long blond hair flowing rebelliously over his shoulders, none of the gallery visitors seem to realise who he is. He, in turn, doesn’t take much notice of them, moving through the rooms as comfortably as if he were in his own home.
While the first room is focused on Harald’s well known inner-city imagery of Prenzlauer Berg (where he mostly worked and lived) and the neighbouring East Berlin districts of Friedrichshain, Pankow and Weissensee, the exhibition shifts perspective in subsequent rooms to cover Harald’s various forays into East Germany, his work with the Stephanus Foundation (a Protestant non-profit social welfare organisation), and some of the events leading up to the fall of the Wall—including some wonderful shots from the 1988 Bruce Springsteen concert, and various demonstrations. There’s also some imagery from the early 90s, including one of the first squat evictions in Friedrichshain, and scenes from football matches, complete with skin-headed hooligans.
Despite being more or less synonymous with East Berlin, Harald was born in Radebeul, Saxony in 1954, only arriving in the city in 1978, when he was 23 years old. “I originally moved here for a woman,” he smirks, as the two of us take a seat on the terrace outside the gallery and he lights up what will be the first of countless Pall Malls during the interview. “She was a Berliner and had been living with me in Radebeul. She wanted to move back to Berlin and told me that if I wanted to stay with her, I had to come here too. I already knew a lot of people here, including my brother, who had been studying here since 1986.
“I had visited him a few times, but my very first impressions of Berlin were when I was six years old. The Wall wasn’t up then, so we went to West Berlin and I remember very well the S-Bahn and U-Bahn, lifts and the escalators, and that it felt big…very big. My girlfriend and I got an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg. The toilet was outdoors but the rent was cheap. There were so many apartments that cost next to nothing back then, my brother had one too. There was only one housing authority, and they were generally happy that someone was inside the places and using them. I think we paid eighty Ostmarks (around 10 euros in today’s money) for around ninety square meters.”
In his youth, Harald had been something of a music-loving hippie, working as a roadie for popular GDR rock band the Bürkholz Formation until they got banned after a concert in Radeburg prompted riots between fans and security. As well as miscellaneous jobs as a painter, elevator fitter and scaffolder, Harald had some training and experience as a photographer via his father (also a photographer), whose workshop Harald worked in for a while; as a passport image photographer; at the central picture office of the Technical University of Dresden, and for the university newspaper. He completed his professional qualification in 1976 at the Technical School for Photography in Caputh near Potsdam, alongside his training as a technician at TU Dresden.
In Berlin he took whatever jobs came along, including spells for Deutsche Post and as a lab assistant in the Deutsches Theater. But the role that really gave him the opportunity to develop his craft was working as a telegram messenger, which involved walking around Prenzlauer Berg with no real time restrictions. He began to take his camera along with him and snap things he found interesting, eventually purchasing his first proper camera in 1983 (“it cost around 4,000 Ostmarks”), which he upgraded when he started to get published in better paid West German publications.
“It wasn’t really viable to be a photographer as a job, nor even as an artform in the GDR,” says Harald, firing up yet another Pall Mall and watching the non-stop trundle of the busy traffic along Hardenbergstrasse. ”I had a few exhibitions in church halls and youth clubs, as well as in private apartments, but it wasn’t until I got a stipend for the Stephanus Foundation that I really started to get paid. And it was only when I started to get published in the West that I could make a living from it. But that’s when all the Scheisse with the Stasi started of course.”
One of the most poignant aspects of the C/O exhibition is one I wasn’t expecting: an anteroom that zooms in on Harald’s biography and showcases some of his books and publications, but mostly illustrates his tense relationship with the GDR’s notoriously invasive Ministry for State Security, aka, the Stasi. The walls of this room are plastered with large-scale excerpts from his official Stasi files, which ran to a whopping 1,400 pages; at one point he was being watched by up to a hundred operatives, making him the most monitored photographer in the entire GDR.
Not only did his obviously critical eye make him suspicious to the regime, but his circle of friends—mostly artists and dissidents—meant he was part of the protest culture he was chronicling, and therefore an even greater potential threat. The Stasi gave him the codename Radfahrer (‘bike rider’) and began monitoring his daily activities more intensely: coming into his apartment when he wasn’t there and confiscating items like books and photo materials, bringing him in for routine interrogations. He also experienced the absurd situation of operatives not only following him, but photographing what he was photographing.
“They called me ‘Radfahrer’ because they thought I had organised a cycling demo, but actually that wasn’t me—I had just helped hire some bikes for a few friends. They were generally quite confused about our scene in Prenzlauer Berg because they could never quite get an overview. We were always switching apartments and many of us didn’t bother to register officially. They actually trained people to pretend to be artists and infiltrate our groups, and also of course paid and manipulated some of us to be informers. We knew some of them, but others we had no idea. I always found someone like [Prenzlauer Berg-based poet and writer] Sascha Anderson quite arrogant for example, but never thought he was an informer.”
Wasn’t he afraid of going to prison? “Naturally I was afraid of going to prison, and by 1985 the state had made it clear they wanted to put me in there for political reasons. But if they had put me in the U-Haft (Untersuchungshaft, or pre-trial prison, which the Stasi routinely used to torture prisoners), my plan would have been to make a request to go to the West, and I would have probably been released within three weeks. They had done the same thing with Lutz [Rathenow], who they also threw in prison but had to release when an international fuss was made.”
And what about escaping—did that cross his mind? “Of course! In fact in 1972 myself and a friend got caught during a trip to Hungary because we were in an area we hadn’t quite realised was a forbidden transfer zone. It turned out it was only ten kilometres from the border, so they locked us up for the night. I was worried this would show on my German papers, so we went to Prague when we were released and said our papers had been stolen on the train. They gave us a visa so we could get home. Then I waited nervously for months for the officials to find out and come and arrest me. I literally jumped every time the doorbell rang! But they never found out, or maybe they couldn’t be bothered to follow it up.”
The reason the Stasi had upped their game on him was because by the mid-80s Harald had been publishing, albeit under a pseudonym, for multiple West German publications like Stern, Taz, Zeit Magazine and Geo. The officials could never find a money trail because he bartered his images for better camera equipment and good-quality colour Kodak film, which he used to shoot some of his later assignments such as the special Berlin issue of GEO in 1986. That got him banned from the only East Berlin photo lab capable of processing Kodak film.
In 1987 he published his now-famous book Ost Berlin via Munich’s Piper Verlag. Though never published in East Germany, it was secretly photocopied and circulated and came with a foreword by Harald’s writer friend Lutz Rathenow, also part of the Prenzlauer Berg scene, who wrote: “It was our declaration of love to a city that we perceived as half of a divided city and yet also as a whole. (…) In this respect, text and photos are both evidence of a joyful Eastern identity and an expression of oppositional behaviour against the state.” The book was revised, expanded and republished in 2014 by Jaron Verlag as “East Berlin – Life before the Fall of the Wall”.
“After I started getting published in Spiegel, Taz and Geo, they wanted to get to me somehow. I had allegedly violated several different codes, including spilling state secrets, undermining military or security issues, and possible spying activity. At one point I opened the door and found them standing outside my apartment. They took me to the police station in Senefefelder Strasse, whose first floor was used by the Stasi. Their plan was to draft me into the National People’s Army, but I told them I had an eleven-year-old daughter to take care of. So they took take my daughter away, which was one of hardest times of the whole era for me, and for her too.”
This being the closing year of the GDR, the political climate was changing and in a drastic change of strategy—to try and appease him—the GDR released his daughter after a few months and subsequently made Harald a member of their Association of Visual Artists, an institution they had always blocked him from. His membership occurred in September 1989, just a couple of months before the wall came down, and with it came a stipendium from the cultural minister and a passport that enabled him to access the West—which arrived on the 15th November.
“The opening of the Wall was without a doubt the best moment in my life,” says Harald. “Even though I would say my childhood was great, because it was only with puberty that I start considering political questions, and even my adult life was fairly decent life despite the surveillance and everything, the Wall falling meant we suddenly had freedom, which is something I am still grateful for today. I think those who thought they could get more freedom without that happening were living under an illusion. The idea of socialism isn’t a bad one but humanity isn’t built for it, it goes against its nature. It’s always ruined by power and money, and always corrupted. That was always my belief and it still is. And for me, the Wall falling was also lucky timing because I was 35—a good age to start again.”
In early 1990 Harald co-founded the now well-known Ostkreuz – Agentur der Fotografen, a photo association based on the model of the Magnum Photos agency, with six colleagues. Still operating today, it brings together (mostly) documentary photographers from all over Germany; in fact two of the C/O Berlin exhibition curators, in addition to Hoffmann, are also Ostzreuz employees, including well-known photographer and founding member Ute Mahler and Laura Benz, who worked their way through hundreds of thousands of negatives to select the final 250-or-so images they felt best represent Hauswald’s work. The process took almost three years.
Through his work with Ostkreuz and by pulling his vast archive together, Harald has gradually moved out of journalism work (“I prefer to tell my own stories instead of those of editors”), and has held exhibitions around the world, as well as given workshops and walking tours. Since 1997 he has been the holder of the Federal Cross of Merit, and on behalf of the Federal Agency for Civic Education he serves as an official Zeitzeugner, or ‘time witness’, talking to schools and institutions around the world about his work and life in the GDR.
Does he feel that the era he lived through is less or more interesting to people today? “I think it is more officially “history” now than it was before. It’s a bit like the Second World War, in that some time is required to pass before people are really interested in it as a topic, or before it can be viewed with some neutrality perhaps. Right after the Wall fell, nobody was bothered about East Germany, they just wanted it gone and wanted to move on. Businesses were destroyed. Products disappeared. But over time came the Ostalgie has grown and now, with a second generation, people seem to be interested again.”
In 2006, Harald won the “Unity Prize – Citizens’ Prize for German Unity” in response to his work for Germany’s Centre for Political Education, for whom he has tackled topics like poverty within Germany, and youth in Eastern Europe. He has also published several more books such as Far East – The Last Years of the GDR (Lehmstedt Verlag, 2013), which contains colour photos that Hauswald shot in the GDR, and the more recent Like a Rolling Stone (Jaron Verlag, 2018), which shows his images from concerts by Western stars in the GDR—Springsteen of course, but also John Mayall, Carlos Santana and Big Country.
The Ostreuz agency is also in the middle of preserving 7,500 of Hauswald’s film rolls, which contain around 230.000 exposed images, and digitizing around 6,000 individual photos as part of a project called the Ostkreuz Verein, which is financed by the Federal Foundation that documents the SED dictatorship. Harald himself has more recently ventured into theatre and film, working on a multimedia stage work called Elbe – Zeitstrom and as a set photographer for Leandra Hausmann’s latest film, “A Stasi Comedy’, about the GDR-era Prenzlauer Berg scene.
“I am keen to do more international books and projects and move away from the GDR material for a while. I like working in colour now, and also with digital, which has advantages for street photography. I am even happy taking images with my phone these days, although I think serious work still requires proper equipment. Nowadays I have the opportunity to think more long-term about projects, and also to work with galleries and art dealers. By selling photos, I can live on the proceeds for a while and consider other projects that I want to do.”
Marc Thümmler’s compelling film “Radfahrer” blends Hauswald’s photography with narration of passages from his Stasi files.
All Images © Harald Hauswald/OSTKREUZ/Bundesstiftung Aufarbeitung