When photographer Gundula Schulze Eldowy came to East Berlin, back in the 70s, the wounds of the second world war where still there, wide open, for everyone to see. This was a city of ruins; all sorts of them. Here lived people who had gone through their worst nightmares and had survived to tell the story. They were the social misfits of East Berlin, the invisibles of a hermetically sealed off society. While no one was looking their way, young Gundula became friends with them, listened to their stories, lived among them and made portraits of human frailty and decay. Later she would chronicle the disintegration of the country itself. And by the time the GDR was gone, Gundula had already moved on. “I have always followed the light”, says the artist, who these days divides her time between Berlin and Peru.
Would you help me imagine East Berlin at the time you first arrived in the city?
It was in 1968 or ’69 when I first came here. I was a fifteen year old girl who had hitch-hiked her way to Alexanderplatz. It was an unbelievable sight; destruction all around. Let me tell you, compared to that sight, the Wall was not the most schocking thing a stranger could see in Berlin. There was absolutely no sense of harmony in the city. I am not only refering to the built environment, but to everything there was to be seen or felt. There was this feeling of extreme tension between the present and the past of the city. And naturally, I was totally taken by this extraordinary setting! This atmosphere of destruction and abandon was totally new to me, a great contrast to what I was at the time familiar with.
Where had you grown up?
Near Erfurt, in a place where the war had practically left no traces. I had had a wonderful childhood, growing up near the woods, close to three beautiful streams; I still, to this day, feel very comfortable near the water. So I cannot say why this brokenness -if I may call it this- this view of a destroyed city appealed to me. I believe it was because I had suspected something then, that I still feel today: that I always feel much more at ease with the truth, no matter how horrible it is, than with illusion. And I certainly sometimes feel that this whole planet of ours that we call Earth, is not much more than an illusion itself. But anyway, I was telling you how I prefer to face the truth head on. Yes, it is much like a catharsis, a cleansing if you like.
Was it there and then, at fifteen, that you decided you would come to live in Berlin?
Yes, I consciously made the decision that I would be coming back later – I was only fifteen at the time. As I was going through the streets of that ruined place, wondering what the people living inside them must have gone through…You have to try to imagine that inside those apartments, inside all those buildings, the past was still very much alive, it was present everywhere. What I am talking about is something that one could only sense, it is not something you can feel by reading about it in any book or by looking at any photograph. It is a feeling that cannot be replicated or transmitted; to feel history, to steep oneself in it. I would walk among the ruins and feel that I could still hear people screaming, and at the same time sense the screams that the living could no more utter. So much shame and pain…And it was in East Berlin, that I would later live among the traces of the war, and touch the marks left by gunfire on the walls of my own apartment, on Rosa Luxemburg Strasse, surrounded by what still remained of the war beaurocracy.
That was in 1972, when you moved to Berlin?
I moved into the apartment of Rosa Luxemburg Strasse a few years later, in 1977. I only wanted to live in Mitte, I had never had any interest in Köpernick or Pankow or any other neighbourhood. The Mitte was where I needed to be, because there lay the spirit, the energy of that unbelievable massacre, because it was in Mitte where Hitler’s Reichskanzlei had been located. All the buildings of that beaurocracy of war, the spaces, were walking distance away from my place. They had been renamed, naturally, by the GDR beaurocracy, but they were still standing. Not much more than the names had really changed…The exterior might seem different, but that evil spirit that had taken hold of Germany still resided inside those buildings.
From that apartment on Rosa Luxemburg Strasse you would go out into the streets, camera in hand. When would you pick it up and take a picture? What were you looking for?
At first, I was not looking for anything. I was totally wide-eyed and overwhelmed by what lay around me. Looking back, I think I was trying to realise what had actually happened, what had preceded what I was now witnessing. I now believe that I was unconsciously looking for my own history. But I was not consciously searching for something. I was a very young woman, I simply wanted to live, to enjoy myself. I was interested in fashion, was constantly in love and definitely had no intention -no conscious intention- of going down that road which I did finally explore. Because, let’s face it: where I was living, in the Scheunenviertel, the place was full of people who had gone through two world wars. I was living next door to those older men and women. And they shared their stories with me. They had not forced them upon me, no, never. It came naturally, this was life. And then, I could not go away. I was already walking toward something that I could not tear myself away from.
Were these the people that you also photographed for your series “Berlin on a Dog’s Night” ? Because it is clear that you were not out to make protraits of the young and the beautiful.
I was the photographer of the social misfits. My fellow photographers could not understand why a young, beautiful girl like me would not only choose to live in such a run down environment among the misfits, but also to take pictures of them. Many would even react in quite an arrogant manner, convinced as they were that there was no chance this kind of work would ever find an audience or be successful. The same was true of the housewives who disapproved of what I was doing and looked down on me for being different, when I should have gotten myself a husband and children. And how could I ever hung out with those troubled people? Oh, I certainly felt that nobody understood me.
Did you ever have doubts about your work? Did you think that maybe everybody else was right?
Oh, no, never. I couldn’t avoid being myself! I was different and knew it, I was rather a loner. And looking back, I feel so lucky for having lived in the Scheunenviertel for so many years. I’m telling you, starting in 1972 and up until 1986, I lived right in the heart of the East Berlin milieu, I experienced so much and had so much time to take everything in and to take pictures. This was a world that was soon to disappear. Shortly after the fall of the Wall, it was not there anymore. But I had thirteen years to eplore, to experience, to look hard, to take photographs. I had the wonderful luck of having time on my hands. I always say that I have never had a lot of money, but I have always had a lot of time. This has been hugely important, a richness of great significance. And it was thanks to the time I had to go through Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg that this series, “Berlin on a Dog’s Night” was realised.
Did you come close to the people in this photo series? Did you get to know them well in the course of taking their pictures?
In order to answer this, let me first tell you that at that time, nobody had the slightest interest either in me, my work, or in Berlin’s Mitte. Nobody at all. We belonged to the GDR and East Berlin was the capital of the GDR. What’s more, the people I photographed and I; we were kindred spirits. It did not matter that I was the one holding the camera and they my models; we were kindred spirits. We were relatives of a sort. And let me tell you, neither them nor I had the slightest hope that those photographs would one day end up inside a gallery, be part of an exhibition. I never expected that I would have any success in the GDR with the kind of photographs I took. I only took them because I wanted to do my thing. And the people who posed for me knew that I was sincere in my wish to know about them and their lives. These people inspired me.
Your photographs have been seen as a sort of social commentary, too. You are saying this was not intended.
This is being said quite often about my pictures, that I was commenting on life in the GDR. This is a misunderstanding of my work. Social commentary it might be, but only partly. What is much closer to the truth, is that the mainstream mentality in the GDR was so conservative and the people were so limited in their thinking and this did not sit well with me, I suffered. While the persons I was hanging out with and taking pictures of were so much more liberated in their thinking, so much more open to life. Do you realise why this was so? Because they had already lived through their worst nightmares. They had experienced the worst there was to be experienced. And now they craved to live to the full, they would appreciate all that was good in their hard lives, they were able to live in the moment and treasure it. Oh, and their sense of humour…Somebody would say something and I was rolling on the floor with laughter. Amid the tragedy, that wicked sense of humour…
They also look like they do not have the slightest interest in their looking good in front of your camera, they are indifferent about their image. Even when they are completely nude, they seem to be totally at ease.
Here’s the freedom I was telling you about, the kind of freedom that one can not even begin to imagine today. Here were these people who had experienced trauma, or were traumatised already at birth, but they were accepting of themselves, of their bodies. They were free. There’s then one other thing which is often overlooked: in some respects, in the GDR we were a lot more progressive than in other parts of the western world. I am talking here about the issue of nudity. Of course, we had this certainty that nobody takes the slightest interest in us, nobody cares about us, nobody will look at us even, so we are totally free to not care about our image. We did not exist! And if anyone ever glanced at us, well, we were the social misfits anyway, the crazies. The opinion of others was not something we cared about. And then, these were my friends, my neighbours, my people that I was taking pictures of. My glance on their naked bodies was innocent and caring. Now this is something most would find unthinkable today.
You have said that East Berlin looked like a sunken city. You have described it as an archaeological site. Did you see yourself as someone who was taking photos of the ruins, or did you also wish to salvage something?
I wanted to dig that site and unearth and save as much as possible. I was always drawn to ruined, sunken cities. The way I now see it, this has always been a decisive factor in my work. It was not only Berlin that I dealt with as if digging inside an archaeological site. My whole oeuvre -which encompasses 25 photographic series, books, stories, poems- is defined by those sunken sites. One could say that I have always been looking for my ancestors. Ancestry is a sensitive issue in this country. Ever since Hitler…But our ancestry goes back thousands of years before he was ever born. This is a taboo issue in Germany. But I was born after the war, therefore I can only bear witness to the post war years, to the time where East Germany was an occupied zone, one Soviet colony stripped of whatever had any value, the way West Germany was an American, British, or French colony. As a German, I have always had to deal with the obligation to feel guilty for what has happened before I came along. But what had happened before I came along, was something about which I had very little information to begin with. My knowledge about the past was dependent on what I was being told, not what I was finding out for myself, through speaking with people who had experienced it.
For me, lived experience has always been far more important than any written account of history. And so it was that I brought myself to East Berlin, to this sunken city which was there for me to dig through and to explore. Here, I hoped, I could unearth my past. I had to look for my roots. They were there, but it felt like they were trapped behind a locked door, or rather lost somewhere down a forbidden path. But I was determined to go down that path. Later, in the years to come, I would perform the same search for my ancestors in other places of the world – in Peru and Egypt. And the history I stumbled upon, was something completely different that what I had been taught to believe in while growing up in Germany.
So your taking photos is part of the process of unearthing the past?
Yes, they constitute part of my research. Photography is the method I use, it’s my tool. I began my research in a sunken city, in an annihilated culture. Because what had been defeated in East Berlin, was not merely Europe or Germany but a whole age that was defined by a certain culture, an era that was gone forever. And what came after it, was the culture of McDonalds and of fast, cheap, easy consumption. What was lost to us was high culture and a sense of appreciation for what is truly fine. And that era, for a very small moment in time, I came to know and to witness in the streets of East Berlin and to photograph in “Berlin on a Dog’s Night”. It was there that the last remnants of that culture accidentally survived, frozen in time as the city was because of the communist regime.
How hard was it to live as an artist in communist East Berlin?
For me, it was quite a lonely path I had chosen to walk. I was there, having the feeling I was standing on scorched earth, and insisting to do my thing no matter what. And I told you already, I have always been a loner, I was never part of a group. Quite the contrary, I rather avoided groups. The main reason was that I was trying to keep a low profile, to hide, if you like. I had to protect myself.
To protect yourself from what?
From tragedy, what else? At one point I came very close to it…It was after I had achieved recognition as an artist, I was well known outside of East Germany, too. And the Stasi had this paranoid thought that I might be a CIA spy, so they planned to bring me to court. This would have been the end of everything for me. Oh, I had of course been naive thinking that in the GDR, one could simply take pictures that happen to show reality as it is.
And even though nobody cared at first, things had changed by the time I became famous. My photos were not at all welcome, because they tore down the facade that the regime had put up for the world to look at; all those lies about social justice… My photos had exposed that this was a bunch of lies, and of course they were not going to take it. After the fall of the Wall, I had the chance to read my file. What is written down in them is totally ridiculous.
What kind of information about your life and activities are included in your Stasi file?
Everything, simply everything! That I came out of my apartment at so and so o’ clock, that I went around the corner, inside the store, that on the way I bumped into so and so, and I could go on and on. Of course I always knew I was being spied upon. I was even aware of the guy who was watching me go in and out of my place. Oh, and I knew so many people who had gone to jail…
How did you manage to avoid sharing this fate?
In 1986 I left East Berlin. I had to leave. I could not take it anymore to have the Stasi guy standing outside my place. It was a matter of time before I would be arrested and brought to court. I had to leave East Berlin. This had not happened out of the blue, of course. It had been going on for some time. Back in 1983, I had had my first exhibition, which had been very successful, in a gallery in Sophienstrasse 8. The gallery owner, whom I had trusted with my photographs, lost his job two years later and had to stand a big and difficult trial. At the same time, the 1980s where a time of slow decay for the regime. The change did not happen suddenly on the night of November 9, 1989. It was a process that had started years earlier. And all during those years, the Stasi and the state itself, were going down even harder on the people than before. Many of my artist friends had fled to West Berlin. I moved to Dresden.
Why didn’t you also head west? Why did you go to Dresden, deeper inside the GDR, of all places?
It was not a rational choice, it was based on intuition. I guess this is a pattern that runs through my whole life: I approach my life and my art intuitively. I tend to go with my gut feeling. And so I decided to make my way to Dresden, while everybody else was going to the West. But I kept a very low profile, disappeared from the public eye and avoided taking part in any exhibitions. And there, in Dresden, I started work on my series “The Big and the Little Step”. It’s about the disintegration of a country. Disintegration that takes place in all areas of the lives of a country’s people: Families that are falling apart, people that are falling sick, even heavily sick and dying, ever-rising unemployment, people leaving their homes and their cities in search of a better life.
Was this what you were witnessing around you in Dresden?
Yes, this was exactly what I was witnessing happening at the heart of the GDR and what I wanted to capture with my camera. Everybody was affected by the disintegration of the country. So I was taking pictures of a great number of people each of whom was experiencing this disintegration of the country on a personal level. At one point I was taking pictures inside the hospital, photographing operations, taking photos of people who had taken pills because they wanted to kill themselves. I was thus looking hard on the trauma of the last days of the country, the end of any illusions and the crumbling of the myths as the end was nearing and the price the people had to pay for this. At the time, I was not aware that the Wall would fall; how could I have been? It just so happened that my timing was perfect. But let me tell you, I think this series is not about the disintegration of the GDR, but it describes the disintegration of any land. This is something that is also happening today, in various European countries.
And straight from Dresden, after the fall of the Wall, you found yourself in New York, at the invitation of Robert Frank. You stayed there for three years. How did your time influence your work?
That was in 1990, when I landed in New York. It was a wonderful, an euphoric time. I was made to feel very welcome and had a lot of support. What happened with the way I photograph, was that my style changed, spontaneously. It was because of the light. I have always followed the light. But until then I had not realised it. Because Berlin has always been a city of shadows; full of shadows. So it is with the shadows that I have worked. And after that, in Dresden, I had been taking my pictures in the half light. But let me tell you about the light in Dresden. It something very special. One could easily compare to the light in the south of France. It is no coincidence that some of the best German painters come from this city; Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, the Brücke painters…And following that amazing light, I was led to colour. This is why the series “The Big and the Little Step” is in colour.
What defines the light in New York?
It is an unusually luminous, bright light which, in Manhattan, is reflected on all those mirrors and glass surfaces, and thus a superimposition of different layers is produced. This new to me light led to the series “Spinning on my Heels”. It’s all about the interchange of layers of meaning. It was in New York that I started getting more involved with philosophy, with questions of visibility, truth and meaning. On the way, I came to believe that what the eyes witness, does not costitute the truth. I know, this sounds rather crazy coming from a photographer. But it has been good for me to be able to realise the relativity of what the eyes see. Because being a photographer one has to deal not only with the good, but also with the dangerous sides of this art.
Which are these dangerous sides of photography?
Rigidity, stillness. Europeans, and especially Berliners, tend to be rigid, to stay put. By the time they have reached a certain point, when they believe they have accomplished something, then they stand still and tend to repeat it again and again. They stiffen, they block their awareness and refuse to move on, to evolve. This is so contrary to nature, to the natural flow of everything around us and inside of us. To me a stiff, rigid outlook equals death. In life everything flows, nothing stands still. As a photographer I have no choice to work with stillness. So at some point -and that was while I was in New York- I realised how this stillness affected me and I began to change: I started putting some distance between me and my subjects. I would no more plunge headlong into life while taking pictures, the way I used to do as a younger photographer. I was now more of an observer, I would look from afar. There, in New York, I started taking a deeper interest in what it is that the eyes do not manage to see through.
Is your aversion to stillness the reason you have been travelling so much?
I have always been a very keen traveller. While I was still living in the GDR I travelled all over Eastern Europe. And after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I saw the rest of the continent before making my way to New York and then to Egypt, to Japan, to Turkey.
What drew you to Egypt?
Once again, I let my intuition be my guide. Three years had gone by, I had had enough of New York, there was nothing for me to learn from New York, I simply did not wish to go on living there. I felt drawn to three countries; Peru, Mexico and Egypt. I decided for Egypt and went to live near the pyramids. I enjoyed a wonderful freedom, travelling through the whole country, riding horses, taking pictures, writing and reciting my poems. It was a magical time.
Until you were off to Peru, where you now spend much of your time. How would describe the light in Peru?
Completely different that anything you are familiar with. After all, Peru is so different from Europe. In many respects, it reminds me of Egypt. Well, if it were not for one vital thing: the way femininity and sexuality is experienced. In Egypt, this is a true tragedy. Whereas in Peru femininity and sexuality flourish. They way women in that country experience their nature is wonderfully liberated, they are in harmony with their bodies.
It sounds like you plan to go on living there.
As long as a land inspires me, yes, I go on living there. And together with my husband Javier A. Garcia Vásquez, I founded an Arts Centre; The Casa de Arte “El rostro inconcebible” where we collaborate with artists from all over the world. My husband’s father was a shaman of the Mochica, and his sons go on the tradition of this culture, which is now part of my life too. In Peru I met my kindred spirits and stepped away from the materialistic way of life. I am working with photography in a more experimental, more poetic way.
Whenever you find yourself back in Berlin, do you ever feel tempted to take pictures of contemporary Berliners?
The conditions in Berlin today are so unlike the way I experienced this city. Berlin allowed me to realize my artistic vision. But I do not feel tempted to take any pictures here anymore, no. I do not take any more photographs of Germany. But I now write about Germany. It is time for me to write.
Interview by Katerina Oikonomakou, September 2013
– The exhibition “Gundula Schulze Eldowy. The Early Years. Photographs from 1977 to 1990”, in
c/o Berlin, 2012.
– The exhibition “Fotografien von Gundula Schulze Eldowy”, in the Deutsche Bundestag
– Gundula Schulze Eldowy’s books are published by Lehmstedt Verlag.