Photojournalism and the interest of proletarian revolution


With the weather in Berlin suddenly reaching summer-like levels of warmth, it might seem like a funny time to write about and recommend a museum visit, but the skies were grey last weekend when we headed to the German History Museum, and the special exhibition we found there is definitely worth a look the nice time the temperatures drop.

FARBE FÜR DIE REPUBLIK (Colour for the Republic) is a collection of images taken by the photojournalists Martin Schmidt and Kurt Schwarzer in the German Democratic Republic. The two men were both freelance photographers, but were hired by different companies and mass organisations in the GDR to take images to be used for trade fairs, products, cookbooks and more. As the introduction to the exhibition makes clear, the images were supposed to depict elements of a fulfilled life under socialism in the GDR, and the fact that they were in colour was no accident:

“It was supposed to exude – especially in the 1960s – a spirit of optimism and new beginning and to present the GDR as a modern state. Up-to-date factories, efficiently organised agricultural production, new construction projects and the great variety of social achievements propagated by the state were advantageously depicted in colour, and thus colour photography became the expression of modernity in Socialism. At the same time it illustrated the promise of a socialist future.”

The exhibition is divided into different sections, including factory work, agriculture, children and young people, depictions of women, life in old age, the modern socialist city and, of course, a collection of the many and varied Lenin memorials that could be found throughout the country. The exhibition is not only a fascinating look at the lifestyle and fashions of a lost world – which the GDR undoubtedly is – but asks plenty of questions as to how we judge photojournalism when it comes to representing “reality” and “truth”. Hanging from the ceiling the exhibition space is a quote from an article about the role of the photojournalist from a trade newspaper in 1971:

“The photojournalist is a socialist journalist. He operates with the camera for the build-up of the GDR and in the interest of proletarian revolution.”

This might seem a long way away from ideals of a free press devoted to objectively reporting the facts, but we know that twenty five years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, our media landscape is still heavily influenced by the agendas of those who pay the journalists and the photographers for their work. Anyone who has picked up a tabloid, looked at how Fox news presents a graph, or visited the website of respected news outlets will be able to find countless examples of how the certain choice of imagery is used to reflect or promote a certain editorial line.

Sometimes it is the choice of what to publish. Sometimes it is the choice of what not to… such as the image of the falling man on September 11th, which was one of the most powerful photographs from that sunny day in New York, but which received such a negative response when printed the following day it has been pretty much unpublished since 2001 to become “the most famous photograph no one has seen.”

Walking through the images of the Colour for the Republic exhibition you could not help but think not only of what was there before you, but what was not. Which images were taken but never made it into the trade periodicals or the “women’s” magazines of the GDR? And how much did the photographers already know what they should and should not document, turning their cameras away from scenes they perhaps knew not to be suitable?

The camera supposedly does not lie. Maybe. But it certainly can decide which truth it wishes to tell.

Colour for the Republic runs until the end of August – Exhibition Website

(Photo: Martin Schmidt / Blick vom Balkon des Altenheimes im Allendeviertel Berlin-Köpenick, 1980 (Auftraggeber und Verwendung unbekannt) © Stiftung Deutsches Historisches Museum)

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