Every snapshot a person takes or keeps is also a type of self-portrait, a kind of "mirror with memory" reflecting back those moments and people that were special enough to be frozen in time forever. (Judy Weiser, Director of PhotoTherapy Center)
One could, perhaps, think of the countries behind the Iron Curtain as a giant “camera obscura” i.e., completely dark with the exception of small pinholes of light, from which images of the world outside were projected on a wall opposite the pinhole. The free flow of news and information from western countries was cut off externally and internally. These pinholes of light were news and information broadcasts transmitted by the BBC, Deutsche Welle, RIAS, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and other Western radio stations (collectively below, the radios).
Those who listened to Western radio broadcasts had to do it surreptitiously in fear of dire consequences, including imprisonment. Yet, many brave persons made contact directly with the radios, for example through letters smuggled out or were mailed after being photocopied by secret police units. These listener letters illuminated what was happening behind the Iron Curtain. The radios would then broadcast excerpts of the letters back (keeping the names out of the broadcast). In this way, there was continual communication between the radios and their dedicated listeners. The regimes tried to prevent and stop this from happening, through identification of those who did so and then take whatever measures necessary to prevent it from reoccurring. One means the state used was surveillance photography of known and suspected persons (dissidents), who were in contact with the radios.
Below we will look at surveillance photography in Czechoslovakia and East Germany. At this time, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland have not focused on surveillance photography as an individual theme: the surveillance photographs remain in the individual files of those “persons of interest” to the secret police.
A traveling photographic exhibit in Europe and in the United States was “Prague Through the Lens of the Secret Police.” The exhibit was assembled in 2008 by two Czech research institutes — the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR) and the Security Services Archive (ABS) — to coincide with the Czech presidency of the European Union. In 2009, it was at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and featured photographs and films taken by the surveillance unit of the Czechoslovak secret police (Státní bezpečnost, or StB) in the 1970s and 1980s—the period of so-called normalization after the 1969 Soviet led invasion to suppress the “Prague Spring.” According to Dr. Mark Kramer, Director of the Cold War Studies Program at Harvard University,
These photographs illustrate both the strength and the weakness of Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime — strength in being able to keep constant track of anyone who fell under suspicion, and weakness in being so obsessed by people who could not conceivably pose any threat.
The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, produced a “coffee-table“ book with over 200 surveillance photographs of “subjects of interest” that were taken in “golden” Prague, considered to be one of the most “photogenic” cities of Europe, if not the World. The photographs that are displayed in the traveling exhibit were described as black-and-white, which “magnifies the city’s gray, lifeless feel.” Vladimir Bosak, the book’s editor, explained,
Prague at first sight looks like a grey, boring city filled with scaffolding. But under this all there is the magic of a centuries-old city. It’s protruding there in those shadows. I admit that I’ve played with it, to really show in those pictures that genius loci, which even real socialism couldn’t kill totally.
Just before the collapse of Communism in Czechoslovakia, almost 800 persons worked in the Surveillance Directorate of the StB. In reviewing the exhibition at Harvard, Corydon Ireland of the newspaper Harvard Gazette asked, “Who were these secret-police officials, whose naïve pictures — taken without aid of the human eye from satchels and pockets — evoke so vividly the drab Prague of the Communist era?“ Corydon answered his own question in his review:
These domestic spies embraced a James Bond modernity. They used many cameras — concealed in tobacco pouches, purses, briefcases, transistor radios, lighters, and on engine blocks (for mobile surveillance). They mounted Sony television cameras in parked cars and in a baby carriage wheeled around by operatives posing as married couples. They ran up tabs for meals and beer. All was carefully archived, including deadpan written reports that read like postmodern fiction.
The East German MfS (Ministirium for Staatssicherheit), commonly referred to as Stasi (short for Staatssicherheitsdienst, or State Security Service) at its height employed 91,000 to watch over a country of 16.4 million people. It has been described as an organization “three times the size of Hitler’s Gestapo ... spying on a population a quarter that of Nazi Germany.“
The ratio of officers to citizens was 1:180, i.e., one Stasi officer for 180 citizens. In comparison, the KGB in the Soviet Union was 1:595. Additionally, in the Cold War years, over 600,000 “unofficial / societal employees (IM)” were listed in the MfS files.
Between 1950 and 1990, Stasi operatives took almost 1.3 million surveillance photographs. The Operation-Technical-Department (Operativ-Technischer-Sektor, OTS), research and development department had over 1,000 persons working for it. Division 26 OTS was responsible for the development of surveillance equipment, including hidden cameras, including those, which were able to photograph through 1mm openings in walls. They were fitted with binoculars for the “photographers”.
In addition the OTS used cameras from the Soviet Union (F21) and Czechoslovakia. The F21 camera was developed by the Soviet KGB was robust, quiet and small—easily hidden in a shirt, jacket, pants pocket, women’s handbags, gasoline cans, watering cans in cemeteries, and even in a bra. It has been estimated from serial numbers on the cameras that a few thousand were built. Through the use of a special device, normal 35mm black and white film was cut to a 21mm format for use in the camera. The well-known optics and photographic companies Carl Zeiss Jena, Pentacon, and Praktica also developed special cameras and lenses for the OTS.
The archives of the Stasi stretch over 180 kilometers and contain more than 1.3 million photographs and 3,750 films taken between 1950 and 1990. German historian Dr. Karin Hartewig is the author of the book Das Auge der Partei – Fotografie und Staatssicherheit (The Eye of the Party – Photography and State Security), which in based on her research into the Stasi archives and details the Stasi surveillance photography of dissidents and others in East Germany.