Writing on photography

Top Secret: Photography, Surveillance and the Archive

One idea I’ve been playing with is to move away from traditional reviews this year, particularly of things like photo books which are already extensively reviewed on other sites (although perhaps not always with the depth one might hope for). Regardless what I want to do instead this year is to take a particular book or exhibition and use it as a starting point from which to explore a set of themes and ideas that relate to its particular area of photography. This is more or less what I was doing occasionally last year with my pieces on people like Richard Mosse and Eva Stenram, but I’d like to make it more of a regular feature and refine my approach.

Given that a piece I published earlier in the week considered the role that vernacular photography might play in a future surveillance state it seems fitting to start by looking at Simon Menner’s book Top Secret: Photos from the Stasi Archive, which looks at the vestiges of just such a state. Based in Berlin, Menner became interested in working with the archive of the now defunct East German Ministry for State Security, colloquially known as the Stasi. The Stasi hardly need an introduction, they are synonymous even outside Germany with the worst excesses of state surveillance and secret policing. Their activities were remarkably wide ranging, but they are particularly remembered for their close observation of East German citizens, millions of whom were spied on, and hundreds of thousands of whom were recruited as informers.

With the collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1989 the Stasi frantically attempted to destroy the vast amount of material they had accrued over the previous forty years. Such was the quantity involved that the industrial shredders intended for the job soon broke down, and in desperation those responsible for document destruction often resorted to simply tearing pages apart by hand before they were halted by East German citizens who took control of the archive. These fragments are still being pieced back together by teams of people (and a purpose built scanner) some twenty years later. The size and nature of this archive makes it one not to be taken lightly, and perhaps with this in mind Menner focused his attention on just one facet of it, the photographic.

The photographs in the archive were made for a wide variety of reasons, from those produced for the purpose of training new agents, to those made in the course of actual surveillance operations. The training images include examples of disguises, secret hand signals, and how to shadow suspects. The photographs from Stasi operations include a bizarre series of images of every person seen using a particular post box. Sometimes the difference between photographs made for the purpose of surveillance and for training is difficult to distinguish. Fact and fiction was blurred, as Menner observes, by byzantine practices like occasionally forcing dissidents to restage their arrests in order for them to be photographically documented.

Some of the most gripping photographs are those that give a small insight into the people actually taking them. As with any secretive profession there is a desire, even retrospectively, to understand the type of person who would willingly do such a job. This is no doubt part of the reason for the fascination of the film The Lives of Others, which is as much or perhaps more about the Stasi agent played by Ulrich Mühe as it is about the frankly rather boring dissidents he observes. In Menner’s book, a group photograph of Stasi officials reveals a rather gawkish bunch of physically unimpressive individuals, at odds with the severity of their pompous paramilitary dress uniforms. This band of pale, bespectacled bureaucrats the people who were in the words of the Stasi motto, the ‘Shield and Sword of the party’.

The mere inclusion of certain images sometimes says as much about the photographer as what the photograph actually shows. For example there is a bizarre series of pictures of domestic animals, which Menner suggests reveal a moment when the inner photographer got the better of the Stasi agent’s training. And yet these apparently useless photographs were still included in the archive, a reflection of the compulsive desire to document and categorise everything, however apparently irrelevant to the Stasi’s purpose. Similarly strange insight is offered by a series of photographs of a party for a high ranking Stasi dignitary, where functionaries appear in fancy dress as members of the groups they spied on. Athletes, peace activists, even a bishop are in attendance. All look perhaps just a little bit embarrassed.

While the insight this book offers into the possible profile of a Stasi man is an intriguing (if guilty) pleasure, more significant to me is the way Top Secret sheds light on the functioning of photographs as part of an archive. When a photograph is made it becomes part of an overlapping succession of archives, whether the smaller archive of a family album or a particular photographer’s oeuvre, or as part of the massive meta-archive of the internet, the archive of archives. By design archives invariably outlive their creators, and often in the process evolve beyond their original intentions. Doubtless few of the Stasi officials at that fancy dress party could ever have anticipated those photographs being made available to the public, let alone that they might appear decades later in a celebrated photo book. A thought which I think worth mulling even for those of us making photographs with much more innocent intent. Photographs are amongst the most slippery of media, and their future use is almost impossible to anticipate.

Menner’s work also highlights the difficulties of relying on photographs as evidence, the limitations of what they show and their flexibility when it comes to interpretation. As he notes, a Polaroid taken of a Siemens coffee maker during a house search might represent a hint of collusion with the west, but equally it might be something as meaningless as a gift from family on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Similarly while those photographs of domestic pets mentioned earlier seem to us like rather touching reflections of the agent’s spontaneous desire to take a photograph, at the time there might have been something genuinely suspicious about these animals, information which we have since irretrievably lost. This links in again very much with the previous point, because the meaning of a photograph can be very much in the eye of the beholder, it’s end use can be similarly varied.

Top Secret is a very entertaining book, which feels like a terrible thing to admit since it deals with the work of an organisation of incredible, perhaps unsurpassed, ruthlessness. It’s also a book which has clear resonances for our own time, and while we should be ever cautious of making facile comparison between the Stasi and say, the NSA, the fact these comparisons even come to mind and need to be dismissed reveals something. For me what remains most prominently in the mind is that photograph of those unprepossessing Stasi agents. Judging by the equally unremarkable stature of the likes of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, it affirms a truth that the reality of intelligence and espionage was, and probably remains, far from the fictional archetype we are used to.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography