“The moat as it were, was governed by armament and barbed wire with an intervening hinterland of desolate stretch impolitely, if realistically referred to as the Death Strip. You can consider the Death Strip as an evaporated moat in which many escapees gave their lives fleeing the reverse castle. The reverse castle in real terms, depending on which side of rule you were on, was in fact a prison”
The idea of a day pass to an autonomous state of political confusion sounds like the veritable opium of the photographic masses. In the case of Udo Hesse, that particular state was East Berlin in the early 1980s, a land that situated itself between a citystate and an observed panopticon of fearful resentment.
For an outsider, East Berlin represented a “reverse castle” with its own wall and very few doors incoming or outgoing and was managed by autocratic rule. The moat as it were, was governed by armament and barbed wire with an intervening hinterland of desolate stretch impolitely, if realistically referred to as the Death Strip. You can consider the Death Strip as an evaporated moat in which many escapees gave their lives fleeing the reverse castle. The reverse castle in real terms, depending on which side of rule you were on, was in fact a prison. These two pieces of mental architecture, though serving differing metaphorical purposes functioned in direct opposition depending on which side of the thumb/wall your life was on.
For the intrepid West German photographer, East Berlin specifically represented a strange phantom limb-a vague vestigial organ of the previous and whole body that had run away, but whose (?) presence could still be felt pulsating and yearning to knead bread by knuckle, if not elbow. Can a hand or arm become autonomous?
Hesse, visited East Berlin several times during the early 80s on what is called a tagesvisum or day visa. This visa allowed visitors a chance to visit East Berlin under restricted conditions with paper work applied for and a stringent and obvious set of “no’s” implicit in the arrangement. For a photographer, the various “no’s” might as well act as a guidepost for every imaginable yearning. Be that as it may, Hesse, for the majority of his work in East Berlin returned with fairly safe images.
The images in Tagesvisum Ost-Berlin (Hartmann Books, 2019) are of the everyday. The first thoughts that I had after looking at the images was that somehow Hesse had managed to humanize the terrain of East Berlin, making even the state apparatus-soldiers, officials, parades, etc. look almost charming in their revelations suggesting that life, even under the pressures of autocracy were to continued unabated. If Hesse were East German himself, these images would perhaps entrench themselves in a state of propaganda-this is an interesting discussion regarding authorship of the work decades later.
“The first thoughts that I had after looking at the images was that somehow Hesse had managed to humanize the terrain of East Berlin, making even the state apparatus-soldiers, officials, parades, etc. look almost charming in their revelations suggesting that life, even under the pressures of autocracy were to continued unabated”.
The photographs are sweet. The people inside of the frames do not bear the significant “Osties” look to them that you see on occasion when West German photographers would take images in the East. The compulsion to see “otherness” in the social fabric through clothing, various states of affairs, lebensmittel food shops in their uniformity and lack of shelf adornment are still prevalent measures seen in the work of photographers who had worked in East Berlin. You could see the differences being pointed out in the images. Hesse’s images manage to condition life on the inside of the moat as passable and bordering on content-this is something that I read as an outsider, non-German. I do not think Hesse’s intent was to observe anything intentional, but rather he was wandering and was drawn for reasons of self-interest or perhaps concern to make photographs that reflected a state of what was in front of and not behind the door/gate/drawbridge. But this is not what makes Hesse’s journey to the East interesting.
Like many things in East Berlin, the apparatus of political interest remained hidden until one day when Hesse decided to photograph the architecture that defined the castle from outside and what also defined it from the inside-THE wall. Those few images of the wall, seven in total were the Images that saw saw Hesse arrested and cautioned in front of East Germany’s notorious Stasi. His film was confiscated, He spent time back and forth to deal with his case and was treated with physical abuse. Later, after the debacle had finished, his film had been returned minus seven frames that he took of the wall. It wasn’t until 2007 after applying to the federal commissioner of the Stasi archives that Hesse was able to gain access to those images of the wall he shot some 25 years previously. What makes it awe-inspiring is that he was able to retrieve them at all.
What makes Tagesvisum Ost-Berlin great is not so much the photographs themselves, which are not poor, but rather the idea of how making images embeds the author in the historical and political apparatus or machine that, even when re-mechanized towards an archive etc., keeps the identity of the image-maker locked in its gears and how we keep suffering the same parallels even now. Hesse seemed fairly unassuming in his intentions and although one could have “known better, should have known better”, I can understand the pathos of thinking that something so obvious could not cause such consternation by the authorities. This is sadly not the case. I spent time in jail twice this summer for accidently photographing a security wall outside of the prison for immigration. I had no idea what I was even photographing and though architecture was my interest, I also should have known better and yet, to what purpose do we allow these governments and their officialdom to de-register our ability to take images in an age where rampant surveillance and military policing are the norm. The more things cha…