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Material Violence: Destruction, Mishaps, and Redaction of Stasi Photographs

Updated: Jul 23, 2022



From Donna West Brett, Material Violence: Destruction, Mishaps, and Redaction of Stasi Photographs in Law's Documents: Authority, Materiality, Aesthetics, edited by Katherine Biber, Priya Vaughan and Trish Luker (Routledge, 2022), 223-246.

Photographs held in the Stasi archive of the former East German Security Service in Berlin record the mass surveillance activities of the regime and document traces of attempted or successful escapes from the German Democratic Republic as part of an evidentiary process. These meticulous records include precise accounts of surveillance activities, which take the form of documents, audio recordings, moving footage, and approximately two million photographs.

Scratches, Stains, and Tears

During my research in the Stasi archive I received odd looks directed at my undue attention to particular photographs as I carefully and speedily rummaged through photographs held between tissue or viewed 4 x 5mm and 35mm negatives on a light-table, the glare of the surface burning my retina. While I was indeed looking for aesthetically interesting photographs, the startling number of failed images also caught my attention with their surface damage, chemical accidents, ripped or torn ends of films that indicate either a lack of photographic ability or an urgency of process. Their materiality as negatives or prints is comprised of elements such as film, paper, inscriptions, and components of making including exposure times, chemicals, development, printing, or archiving, each of which as Edwards argues, mediate experiences and articulate desires (2009, 136). These unruly photographs render not just the intended target but also the frustration, the boredom, the hurried pace, and the mis-aimed shot. These photographs are inadequate, and in their illegibility, they become what Hito Steyerl calls a poor image, wrecked by the violence and history of their making. ‘A poor image’ Steyerl (2012, 156) claims, ‘is an image that remains unresolved—puzzling and inconclusive… It cannot give a comprehensive account of the situation it is supposed to represent… they are poor images of the conditions that brought them into being.’ The retention of these photographs by the Ministry indicates the presence of evidential material within the image that often remains indiscernible to the present-day viewer and a belief in the truth-telling capability of photographs despite their quality. Furthermore, the retention of such images and their associated records indicates the meticulous attention to detail and bureaucratic ideological approach to record-keeping demonstrated by the regime.

Figure 6. [Apartment search and observation of ‘Delegat’], 1984. Stas Agency, Berlin, BstU MfS HA II Fo 69 Bl. 0022.

A further set of photographs numbering 671 in total is included in the archive as 35mm negatives held in plastic sleeves and when reproduced for researchers they are framed to exclude the surrounding film edge and sprockets (BStU MfS HA XX Fo 177; Menner 2014). The majority of these small, seemingly insignificant, badly exposed and poorly developed negatives feature a view from a high point across from a mailbox located in front of Robert Zywitz & Co. Herren und Damen Maßschneiderei (a gentlemen and ladies’ tailor). Mailboxes were of particular interest to the surveillance of the population as they were often used for dead letter drops, a classic espionage technique and a way by which spies or informers could transfer information (Maddrell 2011, 29; Childs and Popperwell 1996, 160). The secret police also intercepted letters from mailboxes in the street or from homes and steamed them open to read or check the contents including a reported 90,000 letters and 4,000 packages daily (Sperling 2013, 212).

In studying these negatives, one observes a level of repetition, of banality, of one press of the shutter after another, the observer’s eye constantly on its target yet on occasion wavering. While the general view and position do not change, a sense of boredom is made palpable in these endless images, and we can imagine the observer’s body as it shifts periodically to ease the intense ache of sitting for long periods. Visually scanning these negatives in a short-allotted time, they meld together, figure after figure posting a letter, entering a building, chatting in groups, stopping for one reason or another. What stands out from this morass of rather average and dull images are a number of negatives that are poorly shot, badly exposed, or marked by processing chemicals or water stains. These various visual aberrations seem to indicate either an urgent task or a half-hearted approach to the job at hand. One such example bears alternating streaks of light and dark across the face of the emulsion, formed by hasty development of the film, which seem to mimic both the movement of the subject, the pulsing breath of the photographer, or the action of the shutter (Figure 7).

Figure 7. [Observation of people putting mail into public mailboxes and emptying the mail]. Stasi Records Agency, BStU MfS HA XX Fo 177 Bild 0110.

Figure 8. [Observation of people putting mail into public mailboxes and emptying the mail]. Stasi Records Agency, BStU MfS HA XX Fo 177 Bild 0567.

Toward the end of a film roll is a negative that is dramatically marked by developing chemicals and wrecked by the very means of its own creation (Figure 8). The photograph as evidence, as index, as a record of the world is here undone in its very making, and as such it rips a hole in the effort to record the truth of the event. Chemicals embedded in the layers of emulsion, and which bring the image into formation, tear the image apart and form ectoplasmic stains of failure. Coupled with a violent tear and hole in the negative—most likely formed when the film was caught in the process of ejection from the developing tank—these marks obliterate any evidence that may have been held in this picture. This physical hole is a visual disturbance that impacts on the image’s wholeness (Karmo 1977), but it is equally a shadow and a negative space that is empty of any signifying sign other than itself. But the hole is not just a hole, rather it is a sign of the photographic process, and the making of the image (Casati & Varzi 2019). This void is equally a trace of movement, as the film was torn from the developing tank the formation of the hole caused ripples and echoes of its own making across the centre of the negative. In turn, this sense of violence and the hole’s qualities of absence emphasise the presence of the chemical stains that obliterate visual information. As a veiling mechanism, the stain here is both a trace of failure in action and an ‘ambivalent space of fluidity’ (Baker 2001, 8), in which the image transmutes in and out of legibility. The space of the stain is the space of the picture, in other words it is ‘inscribed in the picture’ (Lacan 1978, 99; Baker 2001, 13) and as such it brings to bear figurative associations of damage and mishaps (Black & Allen Shera 2014, 136).

Such marks allude to the intensity of surveillance and observation strategies that are hurried, tense, or indeed enacted under pressure over hours or days. Twelve photographs in the archive taken in 1965 (Figures 9–12) record the action of an operative following unknown subjects through a park over the course of a day (BStU MfS HA VII Fo 79 1–12). Rather than rendering the subject of their surveillance activity with clarity, as one would expect of surveillance-based records, these photographs are all blurred to some extent, some are shot on angles that make the subject illegible, other have visual intrusions, or poor exposure due to slow shutter speeds in low light conditions. And yet, these photographs, despite their seemingly profound uselessness are carefully kept between sheets of tissue paper, assiduously numbered and ordered. This tension between an operational objective and its dismal failure shifts our focus away from the photograph as index, where the study of the subject matter is paramount, to the photograph’s signification, its mode of production, dissemination, and material properties. These images testify to the success of the archiving practices of the regime and regardless of their probative value, the surveillance operation may have achieved the desired objective of fear, docility and self-monitoring known as the Focusing Principle (Miller 2004, 95). This principle is based on creating the perception that one was always being looked at and assisted the regime in keeping the East German population in check.

Figure 9 [Hidden camera observation of walkers in a park in winter], 1965. Stasi Records Agency, BStU MfS HA VII Fo 79 Bild 0001-4.

Here, these perceivably failed surveillance photographs, rather than mediating experience and meaning, obscure it. Reminiscent of the tampering of evidence these photographs fail to tell us much at all about the subjects, nor do they give us a specific reason for their existence. Instead these illegible objects reveal modes of production. As such these photographs indicate an urgency of action by the observer attempting to keep up with moving subjects and to remain unobserved. As the operative follows the subjects down a pathway in an unknown park in the middle of winter, with their body swathed in heavy winter gear, moving up and down as motion dictates, the camera—hidden somewhere in their coat or bag—is triggered by the shutter release held in a pocket. As with many of these photographs, the attempt at rendering the subject before them onto the film emulsion is subject to luck and happenstance, for while the photographer sees the goal of their photographic endeavour, the camera is often looking elsewhere.

BIO: Donna West Brett is an Associate Professor and Chair of Art History at the University of Sydney. She is author of Photography and Place: Seeing and Not Seeing Germany After 1945 (Routledge, 2016); and co-editor with Natalya Lusty, Photography and Ontology: Unsettling Images, (Routledge, 2019). Brett is a recipient of the 2017 Australian Academy of the Humanities, Ernst and Rosemarie Keller Award, Research Leader for the Photographic Cultures Research Group, and Editorial Member for the Visual Culture and German Contexts Series, Bloomsbury.

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