December 18th, 2010

Where the Sun Don't Shine

Alright, now that I've gotten the preamble to this "Photographic Selfhood" project out of the way, it's time to share my first photograph. This is one that longtime readers of my Live Journal might have seen back in 2006:

Looking over the Berlin Wall into the East -- February, 1987

I lived in Germany as an exchange student from July, 1986 through July, 1987. I spent most of my time far from the border between West and East Germany. But my exchange organization, Youth For Understanding, felt that understanding the divide between the two nations was important enough that they made all their students take a multi-day excursion to Berlin together with a host sibling.

This photograph was taken from one of the towers that gave a view over the wall into East Berlin. My principal goal on ascending the tower was to record a glimpse of the Communist Bloc, which was fascinating to an American teen whose political views had solidified during the Reagan years. Once I looked out into the East, though, I realized that my subject had to be the sharp contrast between the vibrant colors of the Wall and the almost unfathomable drabness of the scenery on its opposite side.

To be fair to the East, though, the scenery behind me was almost as drab. It's hard to imagine a better antidote to winter in Berlin than the decorated side of the Wall, which is probably what director Wim Wenders had in mind in Wings of Desire when he had his angelic protagonist transform into a human alongside it and then reinforced the point by shifting from black-and-white to color stock. Come to think of it, he was probably making the film around the time that I was in Berlin.

We did get to go to the East for a day. I began by going to a big department store with my host brother to see what kind of jeans were for sale and then to a music shop to see if any western rock and pop albums were available. As a German, his principal goal for the excursion was to confirm for himself how much better it was to be a consumer on our side of the Wall. Not being as enamored of such compare-and-contrast exercises and possessed, even then, of a soft spot for anti-capitalist sentiments, I was somewhat put off by this approach to tourism.

That's why, after eating a decent meal in an underground pub with him, I set off on my own. It felt exhilarating to be walking around in a surveillance state taking photographs, though I was surprised that no one seemed to care. After wearying of what I called the "EPCOT-like" fakeness of West German cities reconstructed after the war, I was especially taken with the fact that East Berlin still had plenty of rubble lying around. Amid the museums and tacky postwar monuments there was plenty of proof that the war had taken place and, therefore, an aura of authenticity lacking in places like Cologne. I remember trying to capture that sense of suspended ruination with my camera. If I can find and scan some of those shots, I'll try to post them as part of this project.

The return trip was uneventful. Indeed, the whole excursion was remarkably matter-of-fact, considering all the excitement I'd associated with the Wall prior to my year in Germany. Perhaps that was simply a reflection of the Communist Bloc's decline, given that it had less than three years to live. In a way, the divide between East and West seemed kind of fake. The fact that we boarded a subway-like train, the S-Bahn, in West Berlin and got off at an East Berlin made the journey feel a little like taking the monorail from Fantasyland to Tomorrowland.

One of the most fascinating things about photographs is that the function they play in our lives can change radically over time. When I look at this photograph today, what I see is both documentary evidence of a vanished world and a record of my desire to capture that evidence. I find myself compelled by the sense that looking over the Wall into the East is a temporal dislocation. All photographs from the past function this way, to be sure. But because the photograph shows the divide between a cutting-edge modern city and one that was trapped in a kind of suspended animation, it shows within the frame what otherwise becomes manifest only by considering the relationship between a photograph from the past and the surroundings in which it is currently viewed. When I was on top of the tower, I was actually capturing a past visible in the present.

I chose this photograph to inaugurate this project because it serves as such a good metaphor for what I'll be doing. I want to transport myself back in time in order to recall what it felt like to be taking a photograph or to be a subject in someone else's shot. And I want to think hard about the ways in which, even if I wasn't consciously aware of it at the time, I was trying to capture what would eventually be lost, a world that, like East Berlin, was doomed to disappear.

At the time, of course, most people in Germany seemed to think that the Wall would never come down. West Germany seemed fated to continue its headlong rush into the future as its special-needs twin to the east kept plodding along in increasingly weary circles. For my part, I wasn't so sure. My impressions of East Germany were centered on the perception that it inhabited a peculiarly fragile reality, one that could only be maintained by the sort of play-acting in which the guards who met our group at the border crossing displayed.

Traveling into East Berlin by bus involved taking one of the poorly maintained Autobahns built under Hitler's reign through a corridor existentially detached from the landscape around it. The feeling was akin to the one that the kids in the Harry Potter stories get when they board the Hogwarts Express, a train that leaves from a public station but can't be seen from a non-magical perspective. We looked out at the dreary landscape between the first crossing and Berlin with the sure knowledge that we couldn't set foot in it.

As we approached West Berlin, there was a second border crossing. Three East German officers boarded our bus to check passports. The procedure seemed tediously mundane, like going through the screening at an American airport. But then one of the officers raised his voice a bit. I looked back to see him with one of the younger, sweeter-looking American girls' passports in his had and a deep furrow passing over his brow. He motioned for his fellow officers to come over.

The three of them convened in the aisle as the girl turned white as a sheet. They whispered and mumbled in the way that border guards do in movies when something isn't right. The tension level in the bus mounted rapidly. And then, in an instant, everything changed. The first officer handed the passport back to the girl with a smile, speaking to her in English for the first time: "Just kidding. Have a nice stay!"

I have no way of knowing what motivated this performance, but had the strong suspicion at the time that it was a ritual the officers acted out frequently. Once they'd revealed their true intentions, I couldn't help but see them as the equivalent of the actors who wander around theme parks playing roles for the customers. Could the whole of the Communist Bloc have been "nur eine Verarschung", as the Germans say? Or was it merely that it had become a joke in its final years?

Either way, the sense that I was witnessing a theatrical performance carried over to my other encounters with the East on that trip. And it also helps to make this photograph's metaphoric potential a lot richer. What if the photographs that I've taken of other subjects over the years, from landscapes to lovers, were also attempts to fix on film or CMOS a similarly fragile reality? I wonder if I have held so tightly to my pictures over the years, valuing them above almost everything else, because of a never-fully-conscious intuition that they fulfill the same documentary purpose as a shot of Bigfoot or a UFO might.

After all, even though I had the impression that the reality of the East was fragile, I was also troubled by the sense that West German cities were suffused by inauthenticity. My perception that I was in a theme park actually carried over from the West into the East. The difference was that, whereas it was the buildings in the former that struck me as fake, it was the very mode of existence in the latter that appeared unreal. Still, this distinction was tenuous and starts to blur whenever I think about it for very long.

Perhaps the real problem wasn't the relative authenticity of the West or the East, but of my own existence. Paranoiacs struggle with the sense that nothing is really what it seems to be, that everyone is "fronting" as part of some vast conspiracy. I've never really thought of myself as paranoid, but it could be that my dysfunction inclines sufficiently in that direction to render meditating on its causes and effects a useful endeavor.