In full JFK-style, I became “ein Berliner” when I flew over to Germany last week to work with the Berlin bureau in the coverage of the celebrations and events surrounding the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Never having visited Berlin before, I had the usual mixture of anticipation and nerves with the combination of worrying about working under deadline in a new city mixing with the excitement of covering a big event and working in new locations. Having done a handful of this kind of foreign assignment in the past, it always pays to remember that within a few hours, I’ll be up and running but with this job, I was out of the hotel within minutes.
In what I class as the perfect mixture in a brief, I was asked to assist Berlin staff photographer John MacDougall with the planned events but also to get out there and shoot as many features as I could find. What better way to get to know a city than to be ordered to go out, explore and record what you see? With Berlin, there was always going to be the niggling feeling in the back of my mind that the photographers out here have been taking pictures of an inanimate wall now for years so it was naive to think I’d come away with ground-breaking material. Still, the Israel election assignment at the start of 2009 reminded me that a “tourist” can sometimes see things a little differently so I tried to avoid doing too much research on what had already been shot.
A fun start to the assignment was having the chance to join the Trabi Safari around Berlin, where tourists get to jump into their individual classic Trabant car and follow a convoy around the sights and memorable locations of the city, with my particular tour following the original route of the wall.
Now I realise that the Trabant is a cult classic but they really aren’t that comfortable. As the German journalist who was driving my car for the first time, hit the brakes for the first time, I nearly went through the screen as it appears that the braking system is essentially a button ie they’re either off or fully engaged. Smooooth.
After visiting the remains of the original wall on Bernauer Strabe (above), I headed further North to Mauer Park and found a real treat for anyone visiting Berlin. In the main area, buskers, artists and entertainers line the paths while a mobile karaoke system was set up in the “Bearpit” area, gathering an audience of hundreds who laughed applauded and sang along with whoever got up. Just above them on the hill, a stretch of wall has become a hub for graffiti artists who work away on their own sections throughout the day. Back down towards the road, a man created massive bubbles for kids to chase after and behind him, a market selling home-cooked food, secondhand collectibles and handmade artwork wove it’s way around itself in a warren of stalls. Crashing out in the corner of a coffee tent, I edited my pictures as the evening came on. A great place that everyone should check out.
With Monday being the official twentieth anniversary date, it started with a nice moral boost as word came from London that one of my shots from the previous night, of a woman walking among the foam dominos in Berlin, had made the front page of The Guardian. Hurrah! As part of the official events, these rows of dominos had been painted by school children and were toppled by various dignitaries to symbolise how the fall of the wall in Berlin caused a chain reaction, bringing down political divides throughout Europe. Take THAT, Communism!
So Monday’s first job had Mikhail Gorbachev attending the unveiling of a bust of himself and allowed me to get my first shots of the man himself. Having looked decidedly unimpressed with the bust, he then proceeded to make his speech and immediately leave the building, refusing to shake hands or sign autographs for any of the smiling guests.
I guess you can change the world and still remain a grumpy chap, I guess but I’d hoped he’d be a little more approachable. Still, wherever we went, the crowds were only chanting for one man. Thankfully, Henry Kissinger was far more open to meeting the people and rightly so as he was thoroughly rested after sleeping through the whole ceremony on the front row. Bravo.
At the Bornholmer Strabe bridge, one of the official events of the day was the symbolic bridge crossing by old happy chops himself Gorby, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Polish President Lech Walesa. Following their crossing, they would make their speeches before continuing on their way to the other side.
In a rather shocking example of German inefficiency (yes, INefficiency), the planned clear area was soon swamped with punters with pocket cameras, ruining the lovely clear planned shot. Fighting my way to the front, I managed to get a shot of all three of them holding a photo of people crossing the bridge on the night itself, twenty years previously. After scrambling, fighting and pushing my way in the crowds, the VIPs were whisked away, leaving a large crowd of photographer looking at each other with bewildered looks on their faces. Worse still, one photographer managed to have a 300mm f2.8 lens stolen by the celebrating masses. Grrr…
As the evening arrived, the official ceremony began and I ended up shooting official arrivals of the leaders in the French embassy (which could have been good but proved to be a waste of time) and found myself shooting the Brandenburg Gate events. Unfortunately this was from the wrong side due to the other position being taken by the local staff photographer. As the rain continued to come and go, the spectators watched the official celebrations, speeches and fireworks but by the time the end came, the crowds had already thinned. While the weather had claimed a percentage of them, there was also a real feeling that the celebrations hadn’t been focused enough on the people.
While dignitaries, leaders and celebrities congratulated each other on their success in ending Communism, the public were kept at a safe distance, behind twin layers of security barriers. While I totally understand the need for this during the speeches by Sarkozy, Merkel, Medvedev and the rest of the political heavyweights, once they were tucked up in their bunkers again, the public should have been allowed in to celebrate in their own way, under the famous gates. As is the way with nearly all of this kind of event in current times, the whole evening left the feeling that it was created to be enjoyed at home on tv, with the spectators that did make the effort used as a backdrop for the cameras. I think it might be time for another revolution.