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Summer 2009

History in Berlin is like misery in the famous lines by Philip Larkin: it deepens like a coastal shelf. This is where the second world war ended, the cold war peaked and communism capitulated. Brian Harris was there in 1989, when history was a live event, unfolding before his eyes and his camera. He watched as the Berlin wall cracked and a human river ran joyously through it. Harris was chief photographer for the Independent, which in those days was like being first violin for the Berlin Philharmonic: few newspapers had ever used pictures so well. His calm, considered black-and-white images lodged in the mind and ended up winning awards.  

So how did he feel when we sent him back, 20 years later, to capture the new Berlin? “I felt like an archaeologist,” he says, “using my camera to dig. I wanted to strip a couple of layers off and capture the change that had happened. Underneath your feet is something really important, something that was quite different only 20 years ago. You need that understanding of what has been there before.” 

He found Berlin easier to shoot in 1989. “It was theatre. Trying to photograph the space where the wall used to be is like trying to photograph nothing.” The people who surged out of the East were dreaming of freedom. Had the dream come true? “I think the eastern side has become the new West. That’s where the government money has been spent, bringing it up to scratch. The western side is a bit down-at-heel now. But they’ve got one of the most dynamic cities in Europe. I love Paris and I’m fond of Rome but Berlin, once you scratch the surface, is fascinating.” ~ TIM DE LISLE

The former death strip at Bernauer Strasse and Eberswalder Strasse. The East is on the left. “It was here on the night of November 9th 1989 that I covered the first breach in the wall,” Brian Harris says. “I went back next day to photograph thousands of East Berliners walking through” 

“The tenement building that now has graffiti on it used to extend further to the right, but people were dropping out of it into the West, so the Russians blew up one end of it. When I returned this year, I was told that the apartment I used as a vantage point had been occupied by a Stasi agent with listening devices in the roof. It must be said that his flat was very well appointed and the coffee was great. The first breach was where the yellow dumper truck is now. The purple thing is an estate agent’s hut, selling chi-chi apartments”

“The pockmarks are from 1945, from close combat between the advancing Russian soldiers and German children and old men—very few soldiers left. You can see massive bullet holes in one direction, hardly any in the other, because the Russians had machineguns and the Germans had few weapons left. There’s scaffolding now, workmen are in, filling up the holes. In a year or two it will be gone” 

“This is a section of the wall, alongside the River Spree in the south of the former East, used by artists from around the world. It too is now being cleaned up. Some of the artists are up in arms because the work they did then was unique. The authorities are trying to tart Berlin up. You’d think that something like this would be one of the attractions”

“I was wandering around nervously with just one camera, trying not to look like a photographer. I found this old man talking to a lady, discussing potatoes. If there was a queue, you didn’t photograph it. You knew you were being watched—coming out of the only five-star hotel in town, you knew you had a tail. And in a queue of 30 people, one of them was going to be an informer. The man would have been 65-70, a war veteran. I was trying to talk to him in mittel-European and he was lovely. Being photographed made his day”

“The Schlesisches Strasse area, which was penned in by two eastern zones. It’s an area of rather glum downtrodden Berliners who have little positive to say about the new unified Berlin”

“An area of kindergartens, half a mile from the wall. In 1989 I photographed a crocodile of children as they came out of school. I went back this time and caught these kids as they discovered the joy of bursting bubbles”

“This is Cahit, a Turkish-Ukrainian in Russian uniform, stamping tourists’ passports. He also has a French and American one. He works alone, but at Checkpoint Charlie there’s a gang running these guys. They’re trying it on for the anniversary”

The crosses honour those who died trying to escape to the West. “This is just behind the Reichstag. Where the paving slab changes colour, that’s where the wall was. The river was controlled by the East Germans: if you had stood here 20 years ago, you would probably have been shot”

The Holocaust memorial, officially known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which opened in 2005 in the old no-man’s-land between East and West. “I saw this boy skipping from stone to stone who wouldn’t even have been born in 1989. It reminded me of something the architect, Peter Eisenman, said when it opened: ‘People will dance on top of the pillars’”