Anthony Suau’s career as a photographer has taken him all over the globe documenting important events in world history. He began one of his most influential projects Beyond the Fall, in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. In the 10 years that followed, Suau documented the changes in the former Soviet Bloc, eventually compiling what was to be one of numerous prize-winning photograph collections.
At the ‘World Without Walls’ congress, Suau kindly spoke to one of our ICD news team (interview conducted by Patrick Thomas on 08.11.2009) about the changes he has witnessed over the 20 years since the wall fell, and why he feels photography is an effective means of documenting history.
I was fascinated with the different emotions that you have captured in your photography. Could you give me a short explanation of why exactly you believe photography is such a good medium for communicating emotive imagery and history?
I think a picture shows what words fail to describe, people can twist words, with photography it’s hard to dispute. I think it has the tendency to be more honest, especially for depicting history, and that is really interesting for me. A month ago I took my Russian work back to Moscow and showed it and I was completely surprised by the response. I did not even consider the fact that the work I had done 10 or 15 years ago would have such a big impact on a young audience. The Russia that I photographed has literally disappeared for these young people, and they have not seen the Russia of the past. I think when you originally take the photograph you do not think what will happen to this image 10 or 20 years down the line. This becomes a very interesting idea when you are working as a photographer and I think it really keeps me going and keeps me excited about what I do.
You spent a lot of your time in Europe around the time of the fall of the wall, in particular in Germany. I wonder if you could comment a bit on the wall that the Germans call ‘Mauer im Kopf’ (wall in the mind). Does this still exist and how is it still present today. Were you able to capture this in your photographs?
I think it becomes harder and harder to see. I think as history moves on and we move away from the fall of the Berlin wall and the existence of the physical wall, these mental divides will disappear altogether. I remember being here 10 years ago with anniversary of the wall and there was so much talk about putting the wall back up. There was such animosity between East and West, a lot of that has calmed down. I understand in the east that there is confrontation on a daily basis about being Eastern and they have to deal with that. However, from what I can sense, visually it is harder to see, that’s for sure. You can’t visually identify someone from the East as you could easily 20 years ago. Travelling in Eastern Berlin today is probably nicer than travelling in Western Berlin. It’s more fascinating to see what has changed and what hasn’t. Then there are places like Potsdamer Platz that blow your mind. It’s out of this world. When you look at the photographs I took of the area when the wall came down it is hard to imagine that it is the same piece of ground that existed then.
I just came back from Moscow, where I did a similar story. It is another city that has moved probably 100 years in the past 20 years. It’s really difficult to find the point that you knew 20 years ago. The streets look entirely different. It’s clean and there is a lot of money, the people are well dressed, there are lots of new beautiful buildings and modern architecture. It’s just a fascinating thing to watch for me. I am currently working in Berlin and documenting some of the changes. It is amazing to watch the change and evolution of this. I do think that in the next 10 or 20 years the division between the East and the West will disappear.
When you were documenting the events did you realise at the time that what you were doing would be so important 20 years later?
There was definitely a sense that the fall of the Berlin wall was something special, an enormous event in history that was going to change the world, which it has. For me it felt like it was perhaps one of the most important moments of my life. The impact on many people has been enormous and being there, you definitely had a sense that this was happening. The feeling was so special that it made you work without sleep and food, to continue doing it because you knew it was so important. The feeling that it was something huge was very present at the time and there was a feeling that it was to be so important in historical terms. However, today, when you see something like Potsdamer Platz, which is so incredible, you had no idea that something like this was going happen.