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Harald Schmitt – Seconds that Made History: Photographs of the end of state socialism

In autumn the Martin-Gropius-Bau is showing impressive images taken by the press photographer Harald Schmitt, who has been on the staff of stern since 1977. From 1977 to 1983 he lived as an accredited photographer in East Berlin.

Harald Schmitt
Lenin, thrown from the pedestal, Vilnius, Lithuania 15-9-1991 © Harald Schmitt / stern

About 120 photographs document the political and social events of that time of turmoil in Eastern Europe and China. Most of the photos were taken in the former GDR, in the former Soviet Union, communist Czechoslovakia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and China. Harald Schmitt has received the prestigious World Press Photo Award six times. The exhibition is curated by Gisela Kayser.

Photographs of the end of state socialism
Up until the 1980s the countries of Eastern Europe resembled a massive monolithic bloc. They were all subjected to the supremacy of the Soviet Union, forced into a military alliance, governed by similar political castes, dominated by a single ideology, and harassed by censorship. Ultimately, however, this mighty empire was shaken by outbreaks of unrest that spread from one location to another, finally leading to the erosion of the entire Eastern bloc.

Photos of these events were sought after in the West, but hard to get. The most impressive ones appeared in stern, many of them taken by Harald Schmitt. There was hardly a press photographer in the 1980s who was closer to what was happening, whether it was the big displays put on by the rulers or the first stirrings of resistance. Schmitt’s images of people living under state socialism and caught up in the scenes of upheaval record the great changes of that period. Again and again he captures the moment that becomes history.

In his commentaries on the exhibition Stern editor Peter Sandmeyer describes the historical context. He tells, for example, how Harald Schmitt 1986 had a long conversation with his brother-in-law, a doctor in Stralsund, and ventured to predict that the Berlin Wall would fall in ten years. His brother-in-law contradicted him vehemently. “In five years at the latest!” They bet on it, and Schmitt lost.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall the photographs of Harald Schmitt strikingly recall those people who made it possible. Peter Sandmeyer comments: “It was the people who again became the subject of history.” “We were prepared for everything,” said the then Speaker of the GDR parliament, Horst Sindermann, “except for candles.”

Born on 2 March 1948 in Hausen/Mayen near Koblenz in the Rhineland-Palatinate, Harald Schmitt trained as a photographer before getting a job on the Trierische Landeszeitung. After that he worked for three years as a sports photographer for Dieter Frinke in Munich up until the Olympic Games there in 1972. That same year he switched to the Sven Simon Photo Agency in Bonn and began to cover political and economic stories. In 1974 he went to Paris and Nice for a year, photographing actors on and off the set. It was with regret that Harald Schmitt returned to the Sven Simon Photo Agency in Bonn, while at the same time beginning to concentrate on his own features, such as the Carter/Ford presidential campaign in the U.S.; strikes in the U.K.; the establishment of the Socialist International in Spain, Italy and Portugal; and scenes from combat zones in Vietnam, Cambodia, Rhodesia, Namibia and Ireland. In 1977 Schmitt joined the staff of Stern as a press photographer and spent the next six years as its accredited photographer in East Berlin. In this period he travelled with Erich Honecker to Japan and Zambia and covered the GDR’s socialist neighbors. In 1983 his visa was not renewed by the GDR government.

Harald Schmitt has travelled in over 110 countries and covered a wide variety of stories. His numerous distinctions include six World Press Photo Awards. Harald Schmitt lives in Hamburg.

Open 3 October to 13 December 2009