Berlin Wall Conversation

After Zoe and I took one picture in front of a guard tower from the Berlin Wall on display at the Newseum we paused to have a conversation. Informed by our reading of Susan Sontag, we wondered about the implications of our choice to take a smiling photograph in front of the tower. Our friend captured a photo of us talking about this. We later recorded a conversation about our thoughts on the moment. You can listen to it here, or you can read it transcribed.

Zoe: So, Over spring break we visited the Newseum in-

Julia: Washington D.C., and one of the things that we did when we were in the Museum was we looked at the section of the Berlin Wall that they have on display, and they have a large guard tower, original from Berlin.

Zoe: Yeah, and it’s the only guard tower -original guard tower from Berlin- in the United States today. So it was a very interesting experience for us walking around…

Julia: We had just been talking about the Berlin Wall in class, in Humes, and seeing it was really surreal and so we decided to take a picture, um, of us and it, like theoretically for class-

Zoe: And it was kind of a tourist-y, like, ‘let’s take a picture for Dr. Denham’ kind of thing.

Julia: Yeah, it’s a little kitschy.

Zoe: So, we stood there and had our friends take a picture of us, and smiled like we would in any kind of tourist-y picture and then, um, we were standing there

Julia: And you asked me ‘are we supposed to smile in front of this?’ because obviously it’s a picture, and you smile in a picture, but it’s not a smiling thing, it’s very serious. Like the guard tower, it’s real, it’s original, like… people died at the wall.

Zoe: Yeah.

Julia: And that contrast felt really weird

Zoe: So then we had this conversation about ‘Should we smile?’ and I think there’s- so we have included one picture of us talking about it, we didn’t take any pictures after that because it just seemed weird to take a serious picture. But I think we kind of thought ‘Wait, should we have taken a picture at all in the first place in front of it?’ Maybe that’s where we went wrong, because it didn’t feel right to smile.

Julia: Yeah. I think more so than anything else the smiling was probably the weirdest thing because it feels like, I don’t know, like celebratory, or like we’re like ‘Oh look at us being a part of this’ and then that just reads really weird because of the seriousness of the Berlin Wall, and how the guard towers were, effectively, methods of oppression.

Zoe: Yeah.

Julia: So, yeah. We have, I don’t know, the photo set, it’s really interesting to see together because we look- like obviously in the second picture we’re talking about whether or not we should have even smiled in the first one or even have taken the first one, and that kind of ties in a lot to like, how the photograph, like, just doesn’t do it justice. Whether we were in the picture or not, like how it felt to actually be there, looking at the original tower, and the section of the wall they have.

Zoe: Yeah. And we talked a lot about, um, what we had read from Susan Sontag and her Regarding the Pain of Others, and it kind of occurred to me that this is a picture, not of people who are in pain, but of something that has caused people pain, but it just, when you just take a picture of it, or in front of it- even more so I think- it just looks like a thing in the background. It could be anything, it’s just a building. The heaviness, obviously it caused, and then the heaviness that the leftover kind of feeling that I felt when I was walking around, it was very serious, kind of, experience for me, does not translate at all into a photograph, especially if we’re standing there smiling. But it’s kind of a secondhand thing that just doesn’t really work.

Julia: Yeah, and we talked about too how at a lot of other museums we had visited in D.C. that were very serious, like several sections of the African American History Museum have special notices to, like not take pictures, and there was nothing about that around the Berlin Wall or the guard tower in the Newseum. And it’s actually pretty celebrated, like they like made sure to note ‘This is the only one in the U.S., so have a look’ like, that’s like- it’s like treated special.

Zoe: Yeah and it’s pretty, kind of- it’s not a very serious space that it’s in either, and it didn’t feel, like, it was being done justice- the kind of atmosphere around the wall and the guard tower wasn’t such that everyone was being respectful and quiet or anything like that. There were middle school children running around, which kind of took away from it for me, um, so I wished that they had done something a little bit-

Julia: Yeah, and what’s funny too is that, I don’t know, we’re talking about whether or not, like a picture of the section that we have can do that section that we have justice, when another separate question too is like, if you pick up a section of the Berlin Wall and take it out of Berlin and take a guard tower out of Berlin, plunk it down in the middle of an architectural space in D.C., like, does that even do any justice to the original structure? Like, I don’t know.

Zoe: Yeah, but then you also have to ask, like I guess, as soon as it’s taken out of context, which even a guard tower in Berlin would be, it’s hard to like- we can’t possibly experience what it really was.

Julia: Yeah.

Zoe: So, but the further you step from it-

Julia: You get more and more steps away from what was actually experienced by people who actually experienced the Wall in its lifetime, but yeah I think we both kind of agree that a photograph with us in it doesn’t do justice to what it was like to be there and what it was like to, kind of know the Wall as a living- as a thing that existed in a serious way to separate and oppress people.

Zoe: Especially if we’re smiling.

Julia: Yeah.

Zoe: We took these photos- I wouldn’t- I’m definitely going to be more thoughtful about where I take photos in the future.

Julia: Same.

Zoe: And, what it means to be in the presence of something like this, and like, what a photograph is going to do for me.

Julia: Yeah, I agree. Yeah, going back I wouldn’t take a picture in front of it again. I might take a picture of it-

Zoe: Yeah

Julia: Not that, like- as long as it’s framed in the context of ‘This is a photograph, you can’t understand, like, you don’t have any sense of the context or how it feels to be there, if you’re not there, looking at a photograph. But here’s what it, at least kind of, looks like from this one lense’. But like, other than that, I don’t think, if you don’t frame it or if you’re in it, that doesn’t really do any justice.

Zoe: Yeah!

Julia: Yeah.

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