What Does Big Brother See, While He is Watching? A Look at the Secret Stasi Archives


Over a period of two years, photographer Simon Menner researched the archives of the German Democratic Republic’s Ministry for State Security (Stasi), one of the most effective and feared surveillance organizations that ever existed. The quantity and breadth of the images he was able to unearth in that period provided invaluable visual evidence of surveillance from the organization. These images documented multiple areas of the Stasi, from seminars on disguises and how to apply fake facial hair, to secret house searches and spies photographing other spies. This material was compiled in his book Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives (Hatje Cantz, 2013).

We talked to Simon to know more about his project, the current state of surveillance, and the need to look further into the past to see what is possible.


IG: How did you come across this project and what was the process of searching for and selecting the photos?

SM: As an artist I am very much interested in the way images work and the way they are utilized to influence behavior and perception of other people. That, of course, has a lot to do with the topic of surveillance. So, while I found that people have written about these things and that I could access a ton of material, there is actually very little photographic material to be seen. I like to phrase it this way: “If it is true that Big Brother is watching us, what does he actually see?”

Due to the nature of this material we take it all too much for granted that it is not accessible. But if we dig somewhat deeper, we might be able to find something. To be honest, working with the Stasi files was relatively easy, but other material might be just as accessible without us realizing it.

IG: What is the goal of making these images public in book format and through exhibitions?

SM: The book is the type of photographic material I was looking for before diving into this project. But speaking more broadly, it is important to make this material accessible as a basis for a discussion on the nature of surveillance. It would be wonderful to have this discussion on the basis of more contemporary material, but this is not possible. So we have to look further into the past, to see what is possible. Nowadays many of these images might look funny or absurd, but that is partly due to the age of the material. Thirty years ago, the Stasi was at the height of its power and right at the center of surveillance worldwide. I guess if you could access thirty-year-old CIA material it wouldn’t be that different from what you see here.

IG: One the fascinating aspects of your project is that it provides an insider perspective and visual evidence of surveillance from the organization spying.

SM: Something you would not believe that it looks the way it actually does. Yes, that is truly fascinating. Quite a few people believe that all this shown here is fake and staged—it is not. In fact, I don’t think that I would have ever been creative enough to come up with the amount of absurdity some of these images show. Maybe this could serve as a proof of authenticity. Some of these images are strange and beyond faking.

IG: While some of the images might look innocent and even mundane, the way that the Stasi interpreted them could have very serious consequences for the people under surveillance.

SM: This is very important, even though many of these images make you smile and shake your head. Please do not forget that they were never meant to be seen by the public. They are real, and the things taught through these pictures were used in real life to suppress a whole society.

Also, many of the things documented apparently show nothing of importance. However, a picture of a West German coffee maker could be interpreted as something very harmless or as something that might send you to jail. Big Brother has some strange powers, and one of them is to look at information gathered and read it the way he wants. People really suffered for some of these harmless photographs.

IG: Are there any images that you find especially significant in terms of surveillance?

SM: Personally, I am deeply moved by the huge number of Polaroid images that were taken during secret house searches. People were not aware that the Stasi quite frequently broke into apartments of people they considered a threat. In fact, the Stasi agents were so good in hiding the fact that they searched everything that most people only found out about it after the fall of the Berlin Wall. To me, they reveal the true terror that hides inside these systems.

Revealing in another totally different way, are images I did find that show agents from western allied military organizations—the so-called “Military Liaison Missions.” These spies were in theory free to move inside East Germany. These pictures show the moment when a Stasi agent and a western agent encounter each other and both take a picture. This tells me that, even though these people appeared to operate on two opposing sides of a conflict, they did share a similar state of mind. It is also quite revealing that the images taken by western agents are still not accessible.

IG: It is interesting that the Stasi archive is public and the archives from West Germany, UK, or US are not.

SM: The archive the Stasi unwillingly left behind is a true treasure. We have to keep in mind that, if the Stasi had its say, none of the material shown in the book and stored in the files would have survived. It is somewhat ironic that the West claims freedom and transparency to be key factors in the structure of society. History opened up the files of one of the most autocratic and opaque systems while those in the West remain hidden—or in huge parts have been destroyed.

It is not that I did not try to get access to similar material from West German archives—oh hell I did. But there is no way of getting access. One source familiar with the BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst) archives told me: “Of course similar things exist, but keep in mind that the person putting on disguises as a training might now be the head of a whole department. Of course these pictures never get out.”

IG: What are your thoughts on current surveillance?

SM: The situation is terrible. It makes me sick when I look at the cooperation between European countries and the US that goes against all democratic principles. What makes it absurd is the situation in Germany, where both current chancellor Angel Merkel and president Joachim Gauck grew up in East Germany and both have accumulated huge Stasi files of their own. Even worse, Gauck played a key role in opening the Stasi files to the public. We are at the point at which several powerful people should face court to resolve this. But this is not going to happen. Instead, whistleblowers disappear in jail. People like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden deserve our fullest support and sympathy and should be treated like heroes.

IG: Some of your other projects have also touched on camouflage and disguise. How does this project relate to your previous trajectory and what is ahead?

SM: Images and how they are used fascinates me. Most of my work is closely related, even though I am not completely sure if this is clear to others.

Currently I am trying to work with an archive in the UK—which unfortunately has proven to be extremely difficult. Please wish me luck. Not to go into the details, but it would be about the relationship between tourism and war and how the touristic gaze guides the focus of warfare. Again, related to the Stasi project, but I am not going to reveal the details.

IG: Best of luck! Looking forward to seeing the result of that project.