Behind Walls

Eastern Europe before 1989

In 1989 the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded the end of the East Block. Socialism and totalitarianism made way for capitalism and democracy. A unique reservoir of photography was buried along with the old values. Over the years, each of the member states of the East Block had developed its own photographic vocabulary, which almost never extended beyond its national borders. Now that memories of the Communist era are no longer welcome, this historically important body of photography faces the threat of remaining unseen forever.

Two decades after the end of the East Block, Noorderlicht unlocks this forgotten treasure. In service of the regime, independently or working underground, photographers in the East Block documented a now vanished era, each in their own way. Behind Walls, the 15th Noorderlicht Photofestival, offers an overview of their work, which is generally being seen here for the first time outside its country of origin. Never before has photography from all the former East Block lands been brought together in one large-scale presentation.

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. In one international presentation the viewer can see how photographers throughout the East Block experienced the world around them, and how the absence of freedom affected their work. With contributions by 35 photographers from twelve countries, Noorderlicht brings to life a world that ceased to exist in 1989.