Shadows on the Berlin Wall
Cosgrove, Ben, and Paul Schutzer. “The Berlin Wall bears the shadowy silhouettes of West Berliners waving to their relatives on the unseen, Eastern side of the Wall in December 1962.” Time, TIme, Inc., 15 May 2014, time.com/3879870/berlin-wall-photos-early-days-cold-war-symbol/.
The shadows of West Berliners waving to their relatives in East Berlin are projected onto the Berlin Wall, emphasizing the barrier between them. Although the figures are clear, the photo contains no living human beings, and although the Wall itself is the only physical thing in in picture, the intangible silhouettes seem to be the real subject. Thus, the focus is a set of seven faceless, ghostly figures, which seem to be a part of the Wall itself, just as the lives that were lost to the Wall have become an integral part of the Wall’s story.
This particular photograph seems to have a myriad of possible interpretations, and, after consideration of several of these, there does not seem to be a single “correct” way of reading the photo. This is because of the distance between the viewer and the subjects of the photo, and because of the ambiguity of the shadow figures. In my interpretation of the photo (above), I connected the shadowy figures to the people who died crossing the wall. My interpretation was likely influenced by my knowledge of the deadly history of the Berlin Wall, and by the ghostly nature of shadows without the presence of the people who create them. Susan Sontag’s analyses of human interaction with photographs has helped to inform my own analysis of the way in which I read the above photo, and why.
In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag points out that “Normally if there is any distance from the subject, what a photograph ‘says’ can be read in several ways” (Sontag Regarding 29). Sontag does not clarify whether she means physical distance, experiential distance, or distance of some other sort, however, to me, this photograph exemplifies “distance” from the subject perfectly, as the real subjects, the people whose shadows are projected onto the wall, do not appear in the picture at all. The distance in this photo is such that the viewer cannot see the faces of the subjects, or anything other than their general outline. Instead, the shadows – and the wall – remain a blank slate for the viewer to interpret, and the ambiguity of the photo leaves the interpreter with many possibilities.
Sontag makes a point of heavily stressing the importance of understanding the history and intention behind photographs. In her book, On Photography, she says that captions for photos hold importance for this reason (Sontag On Photography 23). While the title of this photo does provide the viewer with some factual information about the details of the photo, the viewer’s interpretation is likely primarily informed by common knowledge regarding the history of the Berlin Wall. We commonly remember the Wall as a divisive, deadly piece of history, and although this photo is not violent and the caption does not allude to hardship, this knowledge likely heavily influences any reader’s interpretation of the symbolism in the photo. Through my own studies, I, personally, have a fairly strong image of the Berlin Wall as something that caused much hardship and tragedy for many people. Thus, my reading of the photo is heavily informed by my own preconceived notions about the Wall. Because of my ready association of the Wall with tragedy and death, the shadows were easy for me to imagine as ghosts.
The shadows in this photo are strikingly reminiscent of the shadow imprints of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombs were dropped. The knowledge that the people to whom those shadows belonged are not there, and are, in fact, dead, makes the Hiroshima and Nagasaki photos staggeringly powerful. Although the viewer knows that living people create the shadows in this photo, the absence of the people themselves still gives the image an eerie ambiguity. The photographers’ camera placement highlights the figures with their arms in the air, and although the viewer knows that the figures are waving to their loved ones, one can easily imagine that they are waving to capture the viewer’s attention – that they are crying for help. Indeed, the figures appear permanently entrapped in the wall, crying for attention, just as those whose lives were lost to the wall will forever be entrapped in history.
The distance from the subject in this photo leaves the reader with many possible ways in which to interpret the symbolism of the shadows on the wall (Sontag Regarding 29). Whether or not the photographer intended it, his camera placement, highlighting figures waving with their arms in the air and excluding the people to whom the shadows belong, and knowledge of the history of the Berlin Wall, easily lead the viewer to interpret the photo as a representation of the lives lost to the Wall. The figures, which appear trapped in the wall, waving their arms, crying for help, remind the viewer that the people who died trying to cross the Wall will remain forever lost in the tragic void of division that was the Berlin Wall.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Picador, 1977.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador, 2003.