Berlin wall at Christmas 1963 - Ian Berry/Magnum Photos
It is now 60 years since the Berlin Wall was built. Perhaps the most infamous symbol of the Cold War, the tearing down of the wall in 1989 was one of the defining events of the 20th Century – images of euphoric crowds chipping holes in its concrete or dancing along it in celebration have become part of our collective memories. However, it was at Christmas 1963, during the early days of the wall, that Ian Berry was on hand to record an earlier, much less-publicised event – the first time the East German government conceded to open the wall to allow relatives to meet.
Ian, who had already made a reputation in South Africa with Drum magazine and who had been the only photographer to witness the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, had decided to travel to Berlin without a commission, on a hunch about a good story. As soon as he arrived in the city Ian travelled into the eastern sector, with a couple of Leicas and his Nikon F. There he found a strange atmosphere, with a suspicious, edgy populace watched over by the Volkspolizei (VoPos) from guardhouses incongruously decorated with mini Christmas trees.
Photo Credit: Ian Berry/Magnum Photos
Ian had wanted to accompany a family as they crossed but he had trouble finding anyone willing to be photographed due to the ubiquitous presence of the police. People would shy away from anyone with a camera, and without an interpreter he had no luck. So, instead, Ian chose to mill around at Checkpoint Charlie on the chance of something happening. As he waited, in the distance he saw two men on either side of the checkpoint. They were clearly brothers and were dressed almost identically in hat, glasses and leather coats.
Not close enough to use his Leicas, Ian opted for the 200mm long lens on his Nikon F to capture the simple moment of their recognition. Having got the images, he arrived back in Paris just before Christmas in order to get the story out. Sadly for Ian Magnum’s Paris office had shut up shop for the holiday and the story was not distributed in time and it has never been published in its entirety.
There have been many great images of the Berlin Wall, such as the famous 1961 shot of the border guard Conrad Schumann jumping the wire to freedom, or Raymond Depardon’s image of the shouting man straddling the wall in 1989. This image, though, is one of the best. The two brothers with their outstretched arms almost mirror each other, expressing a palpable feeling of joy. More importantly however, the picture works as a small moment on a human scale, a poignant reminder of the larger human cost of the wall, and of the scars of separation that still persist.
Ian has taken a great many images that capture such human moments and he has gained great fame and respect for his journalism. He is celebrated for his work in South Africa and for his book ‘The English’, and continues to work to this day. Most recently he has been working on a large-scale project on water use throughout the world.