Revealing Memories of East Germany's Communist Regime

Photographing and interviewing German Democratic Republic citizens mistakenly imprisoned by the Stasi, Martina Cirese explores the East German State Security’s desire for total domination and the influence of its persecution on the victims.

© Martina Cirese, from the series Karma Police. Edda Schönherz, 1944, television presenter in East Berlin, sentenced to three years' imprisonment for being "not politically correct." During this time, she never saw her children.

Twenty-five years after the archives of the East German Ministry for State Security (the Stasi) were made public – piling up to 180 km of files – photographer Martina Cirese decided to investigate how this repressive system and its drastic measures had affected the lives of those it had targeted. A history student who wrote her thesis on totalitarianism and had recently moved to Berlin as a photographer, she was naturally drawn to diving into this monumental chapter of European history.

But what she wanted to understand mainly was the psychological component, and to do so, she needed to meet former so-called dissidents. She found them at the Hohenschönhausen Memorial, a public museum set in the place of the former Stasi remand prison, where citizens under investigation were interrogated and, most of the time, jailed, and that now provides tours singularly given by former prisoners.

© Martina Cirese, from the series Karma Police. Jorge Luís García Vázques, 1959, Havana, Cuba, refused to work as a spy. He got arrested in 1987 in the GDR end deported to his homeland. After the fall of the wall, Vázques was legally able to leave Cuba again.

“I wanted to include their voice in the project”, Cirese explains. Her apparatus relies on this statement: each portrait was shot in a place chosen by the subject and is then associated to a quote and a close-up from the jail that echoes their stories. One of the testimonies that startled her the most was that of Jorge Luís García Vázques, who recounts, “I will never forget the nights in jail. Every fifteen minutes they were beating on the door. They persecuted me in the dark”.

Emphasising his unsettling memory, a photograph of a door, whose open window looks like a shouting mouth, is paired to his portrait. “I think the portraits are strong because they are so real. It’s like each of them was reenacting the scene they still can’t cope with today”, Cirese notes. “Some of them struggled recalling this time because so many years later they were still living the memory of their experience.”

© Martina Cirese, from the series Karma Police. Monika Schneider, East Berlin, tried to escape for love to West Berlin. Sentenced to two years and six months of prison.

Strong emotions capture the viewer’s gaze, and only in a second moment do their stories unravel. Lost in sadness in an empty room corner, Monika Schneider explains that she had been asked to stay in that very corner for hours, sitting on a hard stool with her hands under her knees, before being interrogated. Sitting here again, she noticed the flower wallpaper whose motive she could remember and couldn’t bare seeing anymore.

Going through the whole series is not only troubling for the stories they reveal, but even more so for the fact that all these people were incarcerated for no reason. “This represents the oppression”, Cirese points out.

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Martina Cirese is an Italian documentary photographer investigating the human search for identity. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

PHM 2018 Women Photographers Grant
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