Behind the Berlin Wall with John Freeman


When photographer John Freeman was a teenager in the late 1960s, he lived in West Berlin behind the Berlin Wall. The 13-foot-high barrier was built by the German Democratic Republic in 1961 to cut off the free West Berlin from the rest of communist-gripped eastern Germany. Between 1968 and 1971, Freeman’s dad was stationed in the military there. Even though the family was allowed to travel freely between West and East Germany, Freeman nonetheless experienced the chill of the oppression.

Forty years later, Freeman, a University of Florida professor, still is intrigued by the effect that that physical divider had on people. Curious to document how society has changed since the German communist rule ended in 1990, for eight years he has guided photography students to Berlin for a two-week University study abroad program.

“I’ve felt a connection with the city for years,” he said in a Soundslides interview this week. “I was fascinated by the contrast. West Berlin was cosmopolitan; in the East everything was gray, drab and quiet. I was fascinated by the concept that we were trapped by the wall. But the East was where I discovered cameras and photo supplies. Because of the exchange rate, it was inexpensive for me to stock up.” Praktica, a manual SLR camera manufactured in the early 1970s by Pentacon in Dresden, was eastern Germany’s best camera at the time, he said. In a fortuitous move, he bought one.

Photography and history

Freeman’s study abroad students learn how to use Soundslides before leaving the U.S. By the time they return, they have completed an audio slideshow portrait of one person they studied and photographed during their visit.

The session begins with an 8-mile, five-hour Fat Tire Bike Tours outing, Freeman said. It’s a beginners’ class, and students who don’t already have their own cameras are given Canon Rebel T3i cameras to work with. “We stay in an old helmet factory that was converted into a regular hotel,” he said. “After the war so many buildings were left standing. When the wall went down a lot of things were up for grabs.” The students’ assignment is to find a local resident to follow around and profile. They find all kinds of people to profile – artists, filmmakers, musicians, urban gardeners — some with the help of guides and hotel clerks, others by doing internet searches before they leave home.

Crazy contrasts

Soundslides became a course mainstay for the program in 2007. In the beginning, the group’s final project was done in Flash, and Freeman and a coworker spent weeks preparing the presentation after the course was over. Now, students create their own slideshows quickly and onsite. “It freed up time for me as an instructor, and it gave them the freedom to construct their stories the way they wanted to,” Freeman said.

After the class is over, participants write course evaluations. Some students have written that they are surprised at the open-mindedness of the people and the tolerance for different lifestyles and cultures they saw in Berlin, Freeman said.

“It’s common on the subway to see an old person maybe from Cold War days sitting next to a punk with tattoos and a mohawk,” he said. “The next person down is a 12-year-old girl holding a dog in her lap. It’s a unique aspect of the city.” It appears that walls have dissolved in more ways than one, he said.

Good links…

Learn about the 2013 Berlin Study-Abroad Photojournalism Program.

Check out student Soundslides projects from 2012.

Read more about Freeman’s Berlin.

Later this month we’ll post more insights from John Freeman. He’ll discuss the Soundslides guidelines he gives to students, and he’ll share some of his favorite projects.

Photo caption: Freeman’s Berlin students gather late at night to work on their Soundslides project in an East Berlin hotel that is a renovated military helmet factory.

— Interview and story by Laura Read


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