Picturing Eastern Europe: an overview of photography —  before and after Communism

The 15th Noorderlicht Photofestival is presenting two major new exhibits, Behind Walls and Beyond Walls, which offer a sweeping overview of Eastern European photography before and after the fall of Communism in 1989. Photography from all the former East Block lands is brought together in one large-scale presentation. Much of the work is being shown for the first time outside its country of origin.

The photos here in Lens Culture represent just a tiny preview of the work being featured at Noorderlicht this year. Behind Walls features 37 photographers from 13 countries, and Beyond Walls presents 35 photographers from 20 countries.

Behind Walls

During Communist rule in Eastern Europe, "official" photography — propaganda — was all that the public usually saw. Personal and honest documentary photography was forbidden. Even brave photographers who dared to take photos unofficially, rarely showed their photos to others, for fear of punishment. But of course, there were lots of brave photographers who documented "real life" in their lands, and privately held onto these photographic memories.

Without exposure to other visual imagery from around the world, photographers in the East Block (both official and underground) developed their own photographic vocabularies. They documented a now vanished era, each in their own way.

Censorship and lack of freedom were a self-evident part of life in the days of the East Block. The totalitarian regimes propagated an heroic image of socialist society. Photographs of everyday scenes and personal interests were not appreciated. Only in periods of relative freedom, such as during the Prague Spring, but also in the DDR of the late 1970s, did photographers violate the unwritten rules, and then carefully. At other moments flight into a self-created reality offered solace, and this became a great stimulant for photographic experimentation.

Proud portraits of the ‘worker of the month’, clandestine photographs of staged people’s manifestations, advertising for products that were not available, forbidden photographs of nude women: Behind Walls provides a fascinating picture of life and photography in the Socialist paradise.

Beyond Walls

A new Eastern Europe arose after 1989. The Iron Curtain disappeared, the street scene changed unrecognizably. Some countries disintegrated, a majority have become members of the European Union. After four decades of Communism, capitalism is the new ideology.
Individualism has replaced collectivism, opposition politics is again permitted. The heroic worker has had to become a critical consumer. As a mirror held up to Behind Walls, a second exhibition, Beyond Walls, provides a picture of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Left opposes right, nostalgia for the old days faces off against the blessings of capitalism. Among the remains of the Communist era – from the gray architecture to the discrimination against ethnic groups – a frantic search for a new identity is going on.

These changes also leave their mark on photography. What was previously forbidden ground – literally, in the case of once heavily guarded border areas – or new phenomena such as a beauty contest in Poland or the rise of a Romanian tourist industry, can now be documented.

Beyond Walls tells the story of a world full of contradictions in which a dynamic present still bears the traces of a charged past.

For more details about the festival and exhibitions, check the Noorderlicht website.