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The photographer extensively documented life in the former GDR and had his every move watched by the Stasi. Now, he has a retrospective of his work in Berlin.
From stone-faced elderly couples to spiky-haired punks, the black-and-white pictures of German photographer Harald Hauswald documented daily life in East Germany perhaps more extensively than any other photographer.
More than 250 of his photos taken between the late 70s and the mid-1990s are now featured in the exhibition "Harald Hauswald: Voll das Leben!" held through January 23, 2021 at the Amerika Haus in Berlin. The retrospective of his work is being put on by the C/O Berlin photography gallery.
After moving to East Berlin from Saxony in 1977, Hauswald captured everyone and everything with his lens, including desolate street scenes in the East German capital. He depicted a land that didn't quite fit with the image of a shiny and satisfied socialist state proclaimed by its leadership.
As a musician, he had unprecedented access to the lives of many rebelling against the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) through counterculture movements. But his access came with a price: Hauswald was the most heavily monitored photographer in East Germany. The Stasi, the East German secret police, tracked his every move, including when he smoked a cigarette.
One of the exhibition's curators, Felix Hoffmann of the C/O Berlin, spent weeks reading Hauswald's file in Berlin's Stasi museum, where the once highly classified documents are now available to the public. Hauswald's file was 1,300 pages long and packed with details.
"In these files in the Stasi archive you can really read when he had a coffee and with which person he fell in love with. I am still surprised that he didn't go crazy because they went in his apartment; they took things away. There was even a list of what they took away, such as books and photo materials," Hoffmann told DW.
Hoffmann wanted to steer away from a sense of levity that could come with overemphasizing the peculiarities of the time, such as dated clothing or the clown-car-reminiscent Trabi. "With a distance of more than 30 years, one can you look at something and think 'ah yeah, it's so funny, this was the GDR,'" he pointed out.
'Deserters' taken May 1, 1987, shows people running in the rain carrying the flag of the GDR on International Worker's Day. Hauswald's provocative title suggests they were not so enthused by the official demonstration.
Instead, he wanted visitors to be confronted with the harsh political realities of the life in the East, especially that of Hauswald, who, as a single parent, even had his daughter taken from him by authorities.
In 1987, he published a book in West Germany, problematically titled East Berlin — the official designation in the communist state was rather "Berlin, capital of the GDR."
"The Stasi went through the whole book and wrote written comments on each picture Harald published. And three months later, they took Harald's daughter from the school directly to a kind of prison," Hoffman explained. The curator was moved when reading about this event in the file: "I understood it's not only a story about a GDR photographer where we see nice black-and-white photographs, but that it should be a political exhibition."
Hoffmann describes Hauswald as the "observed observer." "The Stasi took pictures of him and he took pictures of a country," he said. Visitors to the Berlin exhibition must first enter a space dedicated to Hauswald's Stasi file, with the idea that exhibitiongoers will be confronted with how the photographer lived and worked and had his every move watched.
It is unclear why the authorities began surveying the photographer initially in the late 70s. Hauswald hails from a small town near Dresden and had no obvious motive to be placed under suspicion initially. Hoffmann speculates that it could have had something to do with his longstanding interest in the music scene and connections he had with those in the East working with music from the West.
In 1988, a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, concerts with bands from the West attracted crowds and were a sign that the country was opening up
Between 1985 and 1987, Hauswald published photo reports in West German newspapers and magazines under a moniker, but the Stasi officers were well- aware of this activity. It's the reason they had more than 40 informants surveying him, said Hoffmann: "They tried to find out how he was paid and to find the money," but often Hauswald used a barter system instead. "He published the photographs in West Germany and in exchange, he got a camera or photo materials," the curator explained.
In 1990, when the GDR dissolved, Hauswald co-founded one of the country's premiere photo agencies, OSTKREUZ, with photographers from all over the country. The agency gained fame for its raw, documentary-style photography.
While documenting the political situation in divided Germany, Hauswald's photos still feature a sense of humor: This picture from 1983 reads 'We've moved! Across the street'
The exhibition's curators, which included Hoffmann, Ute Mahler and Laura Benz of OSTKREUZ, poured through hundreds of thousands of negatives to select the photos they felt most represented Hauswald's body of work. The process took nearly three years.
By the end of 2020, the OSTKREUZ Association for Photography aims to ensure that 7,500 rolls of his photographic film will be conserved. Some 6,000 individual images will be digitalized as part of a project funded by the Federal Foundation for the Study of Communist Dictatorship in East Germany.
The observed observer certainly provided key insights into this significant period in history.