The Invisible in Industrial Photography
Conversation about the environmental ramifications of progress
20 April 2023
The exhibition “Progress as a Promise. Industrial Photography in Divided Germany” shows commissioned photographs in the context of their contemporary use: in the diversely designed print media of the steel, chemical, textile and automobile industries. They signal a consistently positive image of companies and enterprises in East and West Germany. At the same time, the extensive presentation of commissioned photography in the DHM poses the question of what is not shown, what has been made invisible or eliminated from the photos. On the occasion of our tour series “Doppelt belichtet” (Double exposure) Felix Hampel (educational consultant, DHM), Carlo Jordan (former GDR civil rights and environmental activist and politician), and Peter Wensierski (author and journalist from West Germany with publications on the environmental movement in the GDR) met in Berlin to talk about the ramifications of progress for the environment that remain invisible in the commissioned photography.
Felix Hampel: Right in the first room of the exhibition there is a black-and-white photograph that shows the industrial photographer Ludwig Windstosser with his camera, in the background a typical industrial landscape in the Ruhr district: coal mining, smoking chimneys. The picture appears starkly aestheticized, staged. We want to talk about a different aesthetic that came about through a critical look at environmental problems and consequences of industrial progress. How did an awareness of the topic of ecology come up in East and West in the 1970s and what role did photography play in this development?
Peter, in the 1980s you often worked in the GDR as a correspondent and reported on environmental problems. Can you give us your impressions?
Peter Wensierski: When I used to drive through the GDR, I saw environmental pollution billowing out of the smokestacks everywhere. You smelled it. You saw the soot-covered, corroded façades of the churches, of old buildings that were often falling apart.
Carlo Jordan: There was even smog alarm in Saxony and in the chemical triangle.
PW: There were situations in winter when torches were set up at crossroads in the area of Bitterfeld so that the workers could find the entrance to their factory gates. It was called industrial fog.
FH: You can’t see or read anything about that in the commissioned photographs of factories or in the magazines where they were published. In the magazine DDR-Export from 1974 about the Leuna Works, it says, for example, that research creates “the groundwork for the eco-friendly operation of the combine.”
PW: That was the big narrative that became increasingly absurd, because it had less and less to do with reality. As a journalist, I had all the GDR newspapers on my desk every day; the newspapers always reported on overfulfilment of the plan, production increases, increased growth, never about the problems connected with it, not to mention GDR television and radio.
FH: Was the environmental damage in the GDR more visible than in the Wast?
PW: In the Ruhr District they tried to realise the so-called “blue sky over the Ruhr”, first by building taller smokestacks and then by installing filters in them. In the 1980s, we talked in the West a lot about dioxins and super-toxicants that you can’t see. There was information from America, where DDT and asbestos were already banned. A lot of it was about environmental toxicants that were not directly visible, but which scientists had discovered in food or in the air.
FH: Carlo, you looked at industrial areas in the West in the 1980s. What were your impressions?
CJ: My impression of Bochum was: a country landscape with apple trees and a factory hall in the background where the Opel Astra was manufactured. You heard only a soft clatter. When I took the train at night through the Ruhr District, I saw very large illuminated industrial complexes. Outwardly, no environmental pollution could be seen. I later learned that the material volume of many factories was greater than in the East, but the appearance was basically different. In the GDR you could see, smell and taste the environmental pollution.
FH: Nevertheless, for a long time there was no awareness of the extent of the ecological damage and its consequences, because the topic was not brought up by the official side in the GDR.
CJ: The beginnings had to do with art and travel. There were numerous limitations on the freedom to travel, so that we usually only travelled around the GDR. When I was 18 or 19 years old, I had a network that stretched from Berlin to Jena where there were friends everywhere who would take us in, something like the GDR “68 generation”. There were also artists at the time that occupied themselves with the aesthetics of decay, i.e., who deliberately photographed the collapsing medieval towns and depicted them artistically. We travelled around a lot and took pictures. We were very conscious of what we saw and tried to capture the impression of a world in decline.
FH: And did the first environmental groups later emerge from this?
CJ: The environmental movement was particularly strong in the areas where industrial damage was clearly visible. In the Uckermark, for example, there were enormous environmental changes due to the industrialisation of agriculture. In Hassleben there was a huge combine for pig farming. The ecological magazine Arche Nova, turned Hassleben, like Bitterfeld, into an emblematic term. There was not even enough water in Hassleben to dilute the liquid manure and spray it on the fields at certain times. A liquid manure lake was created in a unique forest area and the manure was diluted with accumulated water (Kuhzer Lake), which killed off the natural shore vegetation and impaired the water quality. Resistance grew in the villages, partly organised by the community nurses, who had a better connection with the people – and in this way we were able to save the last lake that was to be polluted in that way.
FH: Bicycle riders can be seen in the second photo that you brought with you. The so-called bike demos played an important role in the environmental movement. Were they among the first public protest actions that you organised?
CJ: Yes, we began with bike demos, for example, Peace race without victors. At the time the main overriding topic was peace. But by 1983, the peace movement had passed its peak, and the apocalyptic vision of atomic overkill shifted its focus more and more to environmental topics. Younger people founded the first environmental groups and began in 1982/83 to organise environmental seminars and tree-planting actions. There was always a lot of photographing, at first mostly artistic representations that were shown to friends and later in exhibitions in church rooms.
FH: Peter, as a journalist, you ran into environmental groups from the West at the time and you brought us photos from the tree-planting actions. How did these pictures and topics reach a broader audience? Were you aware of that?
PW: I was underway in the GDR as a journalist from 1979 on and I quickly ran into the first environmental groups. In Schwerin I accompanied the first tree-planting actions. This group of really young people wanted to do something without getting into a confrontation with the State right away. They even tried to involve a state-owned enterprise, “VEB Stadtgrün”, and to get the trees from them. They didn’t make any great demands. But the independent church “research home” in Wittenberg with Peter Gensichen already existed, which had a long tradition of environmental protection. Peter Genischen tried to spread the initial environmental idea through small editions of his publications. The publications were only intended for inner-church use but were soon disseminated outside of the church. At first they were only appeals to individuals, such as change your lifestyle, save resources, use a bicycle instead of driving a car. It was not yet a political environmental movement. Out of this came the question: “How does it stand with the environment?” They wanted to know the facts and that quickly became political, because they ran into boundaries.
FH: What boundaries did they encounter?
PW: They quickly noticed that an environmental movement without democratisation was not possible. For an environmental movement you have to be able to point out that a river is completely polluted, that you can invite people to look at the river, to demonstrate, to encourage people to drive their bikes through an industrial area. And the GDR was completely neurotic about that: as soon as two, three, four people rode their bikes together, the authorities imagined the state was in danger. It immediately became political because the Stasi and the police went into action and the teachers reprimanded their students.
FH: But it’s interesting that the GDR had its own Ministry for the Environment 15 years before the Federal Republic had one. How does that fit together?
CJ: The GDR took notice of the environmental topic in the international discourse and wanted to use it to advance the process of international recognition of the GDR. At first the environment ministry was quite progressive in its legislation, but the existential conditions of the state worsened and there was less oil coming from the Soviet Union. As a result, everything was converted to brown coal.
FH: The energy problem in the GDR is also the topic of an article in the magazine Für Dich from 1975 in the exhibition. There it refers to the “planned increase in the production of goods” and the “ rationalisation measures to reduce power consumption”, but it continued to grow: in 1985, 30 percent of the worldwide production of brown coal came from the GDR. Although the health of many GDR citizens was directly affected by environmental pollution, the data on the environment were kept secret. And didn’t the people know that the data were kept secret?
PW: The non-disclosure paragraph from 1982 was itself kept secret; there was no public announcement that it even existed, or that this law had been passed.
CJ: The state then went through a process to rectify the omission. When the Cultural Association was founded, it was supposed to take in all aspects of the environmental movement, from the last amateur hobbyist to the expert natural scientist. This was a society for nature and environment. We organised the first Berlin ecology seminar on the topic of urban ecology and then founded the state urban-ecology groups. That also confirmed that we were not merely the evil counter-revolutionaries and that there was something to it.
FH: What role did the exchange and cooperation between the environmental movements in West and East Germany have?
CJ: It was possible for us to publish in the taz, but also in Der Spiegel and our films were shown on public television in the West, and that was of course the greatest educational success. That was completely impossible for the people from the Cultural Association, of course – they were not even permitted to pass out information pamphlets.
PW: For seven years I was able to report quite critically from the GDR and gather information about the environmental problems. My books were also circulated in East Germany, were hidden, were read, and could be consulted, for example, in the Environment Library. But one day at the border I was told that my entrance and my work were no longer welcome and not authorised. But my works were read both in the environmental groups in the GDR and among the environmental activists and the Greens in the West. An awareness steadily grew that the environmental situation was a pan-German problem. There were also some actions where environmental protectionists from East and West protested together.
FH: When you look at the industrial photographs of the automobile industry in the last room of the exhibition, you can see above all the big differences between East and West, for example in the manufacture of the Trabant compared with the mass production of the VW, where the assembly lines seem to run into infinity. But why, then, was consumer critique a pan-German topic and important in both states for the environmental movement?
PW: I wondered why the young people in the environmental groups in the GDR also spoke of cutting consumption. In the West there was a wave of consumption in the 1960s and 70s and it was completely logical that it was criticised. In the GDR I thought at first: how is it possible in a country where the majority of the citizens constantly complain that there’s nothing to consume, or not what you want at the moment, that the young people say: we have to abstain from consuming, we have to simplify and change our lifestyle. Through conversations with environmental activists in the GDR I understood: the shortage of goods leads to a situation where the people are constantly thinking about consumption. And that is what bothered them. And to this was added a criticism of the saturation of the parent generation, who perhaps owned a car, a wall unit, a new apartment in the “Plattenbau” residential buildings. They distanced themselves from this kind of lifestyle and sought the companionship of others.
CJ: There were many collaborative projects and a culture of deliberate renunciation and recycling. Things that the general public devalued were suddenly appreciated. They didn’t want to pay the high price that the “ruling working class” paid to have such amenities – the wall unit was expensive, the TV set cost 6000 Marks, half of the annual wages. That was out of the question from the very start. Unlike in West Germany, there were enough flats in old buildings at the beginning of the 1980s, because the “ruling working class” moved into the new buildings of Erich Honecker’s construction programme. Therefore it was relatively easy to find an apartment. That was the “small version” of freedom: anyone who limited themselves to a simple life could live pretty well.
This is the edited version of a 2 ½ hour-long talk and tour together through the exhibition. Many thanks to Carlo Jordan and Peter Wensierski.
In the framework of the tour series “Doppelt belichtet” (double exposure) you have the opportunity to talk with Peter Wensierski (22 April) during a tour of the exhibition. Two tours with the contemporary witness Jeanette Goldmann have already taken place in March on the topic of “Working Worlds of Women”. Further tour topics with witnesses will take place on 27 April with Mustafa Yeni and on 1 May with Dr Edith Pichler on the topic of “Labour Disputes”.
 The region around Bitterfeld belonged to the so-called chemical triangle, which was one of the most severely polluted areas of the GDR.
 “The sky over the Ruhr District must be blue again” is one of the well-known demands made by Willy Brandt in 1961 in one of his election campaign speeches. “In this way Brandt focused the public discourse – long before the terms environmental protection and environmental policy existed – on a regional problem that had been neglected until that time. He called attention to the downsides of the German economical miracle …” [Cf. https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/presse/pressemitteilungen/umweltbundesamt-der-himmel-ueber-der-ruhr-ist].
 Siegbert Schefke, civil rights activist and journalist. In 1986, alongside Carlo Jordan, he was one of the co-founders of oppositional Environment Library in the parish of the East Berlin Zion Church.
 Arche Nova was an underground magazine of the green-ecological network Arche which Carlo Jordan co-founded in 1988. Arche was the most successful attempt to make environmental problems in the GDR a topic of the political opposition movement.
 In reference to the annual state-run “International Peace Race”, a “Peace race without victors” was carried out in May 1983 through the ecologically ravaged hinterland of Berlin (Rüdersdorf). The motto was: “In peace there must be no victors, otherwise we will never live in peace!” The second race in the following year was prevented by the police and the participants were brought before the courts and had to face criminal and misdemeanour charges. [Cf. Rüddenklau 1992, Störenfried DDR-Opposition. 1986-1989. With texts from the environmental magazines, p. 47, 49f.].
 In 1987, Peter Wensierski made a documentary film about forest dieback in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains). [Cf. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfcvGYnHFxI]
 From 1975, Peter Gensichen was head of the „Forschungsheim Wittenberg“, which became a central organ and multiplier for the environmental movement. Gensicher promoted the activities of church environmental groups, which provided information through exhibitions, seminars, events, and publications on the topic of environmental protection.
 The Ministry for Environmental Protection and Water Management of the GDR (MUW) was founded on 1 January 1972. The West German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety was founded on 6 June 1986.
 In a documentary film, Peter Wensierski reported in 1990 on the situation of children in Bitterfeld. It was known to the Crisis-Hygiene-Inspection that regions like Bitterfeld were in fact uninhabitable for children and that they should be evacuated because the threshold limit for toxic substances had been exceeded. (See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PiQeRm0MHHc).
 The secret directive of the government about the twofold concealment of GDR environmental data was first published by the scientist Reinhard Klaus.
 In 1988, for example, excepts from the documentary film “Bitteres aus Bitterfeld”, which had been filmed illegally by a GDR environmental group, were broadcast in the West German TV programme “Kontraste”, where Peter Wensierski was a producer. (See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULaE5o3n3Bc)