Ute Mahler is one of the photographers of the former GDR with the most marked style. After the fall of the Wall in 1989, she founded the OSTKREUZ agency with several East German colleagues, which was to enjoy remarkable success. With the series “Zusammenleben” (Living Together), which she began more than 45 years ago, she documented how people in former East Germany lived together, in spite of prejudices. Her black and white photos tell the story of their lives, gently but without complacency.
For Blind, Ute Mahler talks about it in all sincerity.
Was being a photographer in East Germany special?
After studying photography at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig, I started working in fashion. I put my dream of working as a reporter on hold, because at that time there were no vacancies in the few magazines that were published in the GDR. I photographed for Sibylle, a cultural and fashion magazine that valued photography. I worked as a freelancer from 1972 to 1988, during which time I also took pictures for myself, some of which appeared in “Zusammenleben”. But the possibilities as a photographer were limited. There were small galleries in large and medium-sized cities where photography was exhibited. There were also pictures that did not show life in the GDR, but were shaped by a critical view of the country’s reality. Most people at that time could “read between the lines”, decipher the images, and recognize the symbols.
Your photos show a certain feeling of freedom between people, sometimes of joy. This is a reality that one does not often see when talking about the GDR…
Many citizens withdrew into private life to escape the pressure of the state and create their own freedom. Life in the GDR was not only simple and dark. We held lavish parties and celebrated our dignity as individuals. My photos show what was happening in private.
As a photographer in the GDR, what surprised you the most?
Today I am still amazed at the trust the people I photographed had in me. They also allowed me to show pictures in which they did not necessarily look happy.
There is this touching photo of a man in a bed holding a baby on his stomach. Could you tell the story behind this image?
Many of my photographs show people in intimate moments. I felt that I should also talk about myself in this series. In the picture, you can see my husband Werner and our son Paul. A Sunday morning after breakfast. But this is a real family photo: I am also in it, in the lower right corner, with my foot.
Is the title, “Living Together”, perhaps also associated with the reunification of Germany?
The series was made exclusively in the GDR. There is something universal about the subject. I am sure that I would have found similar situations in what was then the Federal Republic of Germany. In a certain sense, we were also similar.
You say that you took these pictures for yourself. Did you think at the time that they would become historical documents?
In my personal projects, I try to clarify the questions that are on my mind. When I started taking these pictures, I was very young, 23 years old, and I just wanted to know how other people lived together. I never thought about their recovery or their possible importance. I never thought about the historical dimension. The fact that the wall would one day fall was beyond my imagination. Even though I have a lot of them.
In 1979, you took pictures in Paris. Was it easy for you to leave the GDR?
There was official participation of GDR photographers in the 1978 Photokina competition. The subject was “work and leisure”. I won the main prize with my series on the circus. On the one hand, the GDR officials were proud, on the other hand, they were faced with a problem. The prize was a plane ticket on Lufthansa. And Lufthansa did not fly to the GDR. So I had to get a visa for non-socialist foreign countries. I only wanted to go to Paris. In my mind, I had always imagined that I would not be allowed to travel until I was 60. With this award, it suddenly seemed possible. Then it took almost a year to get a 9-day visa.
In 1990, with 6 other photographers from the GDR, you founded the Ostkreuz agency. In what context?
In January 1990, all the magazines and other clients in the GDR for which I had previously worked were being liquidated. I was 40 years old at the time, and had to start completely from scratch. We also founded Ostkreuz because together we are stronger. On the one hand, the photographers’ collective was an economic decision. On the other hand, we wanted to perpetuate photography in the GDR. We founded the agency in the spring of 1990, at the beginning we had no premises and no telephone. When we had all this, we hired an employee to take orders for us, because we were on the road to take pictures. All the commercial agreements, the contracts that we knew in the GDR, were no longer valid at that time. We didn’t know what the usual costs were outside the country, we had no idea about the procedures in an agency, how to write delivery notes. We had to relearn everything.
Are you still taking pictures today?
Werner Mahler and I are currently working on a major new project, “The Great Rivers of Europe”, which will take us another two years. I can’t imagine ever stopping taking pictures. As long as I can see and move, I will continue to photograph.
Interview by Jonas Cuénin
Jonas Cuénin is the editorial director of Blind and the former editor-in-chief of the magazines L’Oeil de la Photographie and Camera.