ABSENT | PRESENT
Project info

This is a work about walls and people, old and new. It is the year 2007, and I am strolling through the government district in Berlin. I am attracted to this area as a photographer because it is here that federal architecture meets normal people. None of the buildings – the seat of government, the House of Representatives, or the Parliament in the former Reichstag building – are strictly shielded from the public. People can simply walk by them and sunbathe on the large staircases; they can even climb up into the dome of the Reichstag, where they can have a look on their representatives from above. I continue walking towards Potsdamer Platz. A whole new urban district was built here after the sweeping changes that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall: offices, shopping malls, and apartments. An open-air space that was designed as a landscape sculpture is supposed to be reminiscent of the Wall. In 1989 there was nothing where I am standing – now I am surrounded by towering buildings. There was a gaping wound here, an inner-city wasteland with border facilities, security fences, and watchtowers – the 'death strip'.

Since 2007 I have returned to this transformed area again and again with my camera – with ambivalent feelings. The visions of urban planning have not always been fulfilled. Potsdamer Platz was meant to become a vibrant city within the city, sometimes with the Mediterranean charm of an Italian piazza, and sometimes with bold, forward-looking, high-tech architecture. You see lots of people here now, but there is still a distinct note of artificiality and sterility that is atypical for the other parts of Berlin that evolved naturally. The building on Potsdamer Platz that does not yet exist – a picture mounted on a scaffolding shows a façade reflecting in the sunlight – is a fitting symbol for this. At first glance some will wonder if the dog in my picture, in his watchfully concentrated pose, is real or not. He is, and his name is Otto – I asked his owner, after I had intensely studied him through my lens.

That is what I always do. I try not to be noticed by the people I am photographing. This is the only way that a visceral tension can enter the picture. I am looking for the poetry and geometry of a chance moment that results from unnoticed observation.

Sometimes I show the individual in my pictures, and at other times the crowd. In both cases I feel the people's restlessness, sometimes in a cheerful and spirited way, yet they often seem somewhat lost in the world. That is why I am drawn to such places that are an expression of these visions. Mostly they are about thinking on a grand scale, which is mirrored and expressed in the built architecture. I find my pictorial stories in the interplay between these manmade structures and the individual. Ultimately they speak not only of this particular place; they also tell of the endless search for tomorrow, for a better thing, for one's own place.

The man who appears to walk through the wall is my favourite motif in this series. For me his posture is that of someone who is searching. Perhaps he is progressing, or perhaps he is hesitating before the next step – who knows? Maybe he will actually succeed in walking through the wall.

A leap in time – back to 1989: border, wasteland, and void. It is hard to imagine the oppressive setting when you walk through this area today. Although pieces of the Wall are still to be found here and there, they cannot even come close to conveying the atmosphere of that time. The Wall relics seem more like a vehicle for tourism. Only the cobbled marking in the pavement shows where the Wall once stood: it is both – absent and present.

― anna thiele