Unknown photographers, undated, Pictures from the Secret STASI Archives

The Berlin-based photographer Simon Menner has dealt extensively with the subject of surveillance, and his research here has led him to conclude that there isn’t much available pictorial material showing the activity of surveillance from the perspective of those doing the surveillance rather than those under surveillance. Of course we are all familiar with the blurry images of surveillance cameras; but Menner suspected that there must be more. He was intrigued by the question of what the Orwellian ‘Big Brother’ sees when he has us under observation.

It is indeed astonishing that this field has not attracted more research. After all, the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) was home to the State Security Service (STASI)—one of the largest surveillance apparatuses in history. Relative to the size of the population, the East German STASI had far more agents than the KGB or the CIA. After the wall dividing Germany was torn down most of the archive materials were opened to the public, and although access to these documents is subject to certain limitations, the sheer scope of this access is unparalleled among all the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. Even in the West, nothing like this exists. So it was only natural that Simon Menner approached the authorities responsible for storing the STASI archives with his request to see more. The authorities proved to be both kind and helpful. Menner received permission to sift through the photos at the archive and to make several reproductions.

Perhaps the most disconcerting photos Menner found—when he began his research, he had no idea such things existed—were the photographs made by STASI spies photographing other spies. Among the allied powers there were small units who were allowed to move freely between East and West Germany: the Military Liaison Missions (MLM). Both sides to the East and West considered these ‘Missions’ an ideal opportunity to spy on each other. Whenever a unit of MLM soldiers travelled through East Germany, the STASI did their best to observe them. Each side was well aware of the fact that the other side knew what they were up to. And that’s exactly what we see in these photos: an endless circle of reciprocal awareness. In Simon Menner’s opinion, this is a prototypical image of the Cold War. And that is why the artist is currently investigating whether comparable photographs are extant in the archives of the Western allies. Exhibited together, they would reveal the closed circularity of these activities. (read more)