THE PHOTOGRAPHER WHO UNITED A DIVIDED BERLIN

We spoke to legendary photographer Rudi Meisel who spent his life documenting both sides of the Berlin Wall.

When you think of East Berlin during the Cold War what comes to mind? Perhaps it’s socialist slogans smeared across sullen grey buildings, red communist flags, or a Soviet puppet state entrenched in poverty. Whatever the stereotypes Rudi Meisel, a West German street and magazine photographer, set out to debunk them all.

AUTOBAHN A 42 BEFORE OPENING, WITH AUGUST THYSSEN STEEL PLANT, BRUCKHAUSEN, DUISBURG, WEST GERMANY, 1979. IMAGE COURTESY C/O BERLIN

“My aim was just to tell the next generation that we had this terrible border here that wasn’t natural ­– that people had invented this nonsense,” said Meisel. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind, and I wanted to show that there were friendly people living on both sides [of the wall].”

Until the fall in 1989, there were “two Germanys” ­­– the capitalist West (FDR) and the socialist East (GDR). Stereotypes ran wild as politicians on both sides propagandised about the other, exacerbating the tension and misunderstandings. But Meisel, one of the few West German photographers to venture into the East, wanted to transcend political rhetoric and demonstrate similarities between the people living on both sides of a divided nation.

HOUSING COMPLEX WITH SHOPS, HALLE-NEUSTADT, EAST GERMANY, 1983. IMAGE COURTESY C/O BERLIN

In a recent exhibition at C/O Berlin, Meisel brought together 80 images that capture and confound the architecture, everyday lifestyles and people of both West and East Berlin. The exhibition, according to Meisel, was ten years in the works and went through various iterations in his mind before the final setup was decided between him and his curator, Felix Hoffman. The aim was to merge together two Germanys in such a way that the viewer forgot about the divisions between East and West, focusing instead on the universal human element visible in each scene.

"PUBLIC LIFE WAS SLOWER IN EAST GERMANY, PEOPLE HAD TIME TO STAND ON THE STREET AND TALK. THEY WERE MORE OPEN TOWARD EACH OTHER THAN IN THE WEST."


“I wondered if I could mix photographs that I’d taken of the West with those of the East. [...] I didn’t want to say that the East is bad and the West is fine, or here’s a West German car and an East German car,” said Meisel.

“My curator and I found pairs of pictures where there is a link, so that after a while you forget to ask, is it East or West? You will just see the picture and think, ‘It’s good to see a nice story.’ It’s warm-hearted and sympathetic,” he added.


CITY HALL CENTER, ESSEN, WEST GERMANY, 1985. IMAGE COURTESY C/O BERLIN

Meisel’s vivid and empathetic photographs are in the style of famous documentary photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson. Vignettes of laughing children playing on coal reserves, flying kites in the street, or smiling women relaxing in public spaces, emphasise unity over difference.
 
During the Cold War, he was one of the few West German photographers who managed to avoid censorship and venture into GDR. Many photographers at the time were pressured to capture images reflecting political agendas, and accentuate the discrepancies between the East and West. Meisel, who worked for ZeitMagazin, however, asserted that it was important for him to maintain his own opinion and be the author of his own story throughout.

WILDSTRASSE, VOGELHEIM, ESSEN, WEST GERMANY, 1977. IMAGE COURTESY C/O BERLIN

But entering the East was no easy feat. In order to cross the Berlin wall, Meisel had to list exactly what he wanted to see, and where he wanted to travel a few weeks in advance of each trip. He was also assigned a guide from the International Press Centre in GDR every time he visited. His trips there lasted anywhere between three to ten days, and often made him feel completely dislocated from West Germany.
 
“The people in FDR couldn’t reach me by phone or anything. But that meant that I could completely concentrate on my job in the East,” he recalled.

Soviet-style state socialism had left the GDR at a considerable economic disadvantage to its consumerist Western counterpart. Yet despite feeling “20 years behind FDR”, Meisel recalled feeling moved by the stronger social ties and networks between people in the East.

FUN FAIR IN FRONT OF AUGUST THYSSEN STEEL PLANT IN BRUCKHAUSEN, BEECK, DUISBURG, WEST GERMANY, 1979. IMAGE COURTESY C/O BERLIN.
MARKET HALL, DIRCKSENSTRASSE, ALEXANDERPLATZ, MITTE, BERLIN, EAST GERMANY, 1980. IMAGE COURTESY C/O BERLIN

“Public life was slower, people had time to stand on the street and talk. They were more open toward each other than in the West,” said Meisel, who started noticing familiar faces greet him each time he visited the East. The pace of life was so different that Meisel felt like he’d re-entered a “speedier society” each time he re-entered the West after a trip in the East. Connections between people seemed less warm, and more tenuous in the West.

But Meisel’s ventures into the East weren’t destined to last forever. When the Berlin wall was eventually torn down in 1989, Meisel noted that his particular, personal story came down with it.

“I knew that my story was finished, I knew that there would be a greater desire for people in the East to see the West – that they would feel a greater desire to consume things,” he said.

“I was quite naive, but in the end I wanted to make a story about human beings.”

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