BERLIN - Spies from former communist East Germany demonstrate the art of disguise by donning fur wigs, fake mustaches and dark glasses in a Berlin exhibition of recently uncovered and once highly classified photographs.
German artist Simon Menner, who put together the exhibition "Pictures from the Secret Stasi Archives," said it should show how something that seems harmless, such as these images that could be shots from a spy film spoof, can harbor danger.
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"These were used during courses on how to dress up and blend into society," the 33 year-old artist said. "They seem pretty absurd now, but it was meant seriously -- this is evil stuff."
Menner says he aims to fuel a debate about the problems inherent to the concept of surveillance, using evidence of the way the Stasi secret police functioned in the Cold War.
"These are once highly classified images taken by a secret service that were never meant to be published -- just imagine this was an exhibition of photographs from the CIA!," he said.
"Here in Germany we have this treasure, an archive that is pretty much open to everyone -- something worth so much, especially in a time when we are debating surveillance issues."
Germany has some of the toughest privacy laws in the world due to its
experience with state surveillance systems once used by the Nazis and
Menner spent days combing through the vast archives
once built by the Stasi using a network of informants numbering one in
90 East German citizens and open to the public since 1990.
row of images, a spy exhibits disguises, from the Russian mafioso
wearing a furry hat and trenchcoat to the casual middle-aged man
sporting a cardigan and buttoned-up shirt.
Menner also uncovered
Polaroid photos made by Stasi agents when they secretly searched
peoples' houses on the hunt for evidence they might be betraying the
"The people who lived there were never informed
when their flats were searched, so the first thing the agents did was to
take Polaroid images of the apartment to be able afterwards to put
everything back in its original position," he said.
photographs seem harmless at first, showing an unmade bed, a sprawl of
shoes, papers on a desk. Yet they testify to the insidious invasion of
the Stasi into peoples' private lives.
They also underline a
universal problem with secret services and preemptive surveillance, says
Menner: ordinary people naturally prone to misperception are enshrined
with great powers and left free to interpret evidence as they wish.
A West German coffee maker could be seen as proof by the Stasi that someone was a spy, or simply proof they liked coffee.
on which interpretation you choose, the coffee-maker owner could end up
on jail," said Menner, who has frequently explored the idea of an
Orwellian Big Brother in his own photographic oeuvre.
is not something that can actually be found in the image but rather
decided by some Big Brother...you see through these images some of the
general problems with surveillance."
The problem of
misperceptions arising from surveillance was not just a relic of the
Cold War, and could be found in western society too, with potentially
fatal consequences, Menner said.
Menner referred to a video
leaked last year which showed how a U.S. helicopter crew in Iraq mistook
a camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and killed the
"The idea of a common enemy brings society together,"
he said. "Maybe surveillance does make western society more secure but
we have to be very careful with it."
Some of the more surprising
images in the exhibition show the spies of the western Allied Forces
photographing the Stasi spies, sometimes laughing at the absurdity of
Menner explained that among the allied powers,
there were small units allowed to move freely between East and West
Germany, with each side considering these "military liaison missions" as
an ideal opportunity for spying.
"Sometimes they met, both sides
were absolutely aware that the other side was there, but nevertheless
both sides took photos, showing that both East and West lived in pretty
much the same state of mind," he said, noting that he was unable to
obtain the counterpart images from the British or Federal German secret
"The Cold War is over...and yet there is still no way
for me to get hold of these images," said Menner. "This again shows just
how valuable these pictures are."