20th Anniversary:
The Fall of the Iron Curtain
November 2009

by Peter Turnley

In the summer of 1989, thousands of East Germans were going to Hungary ostensibly on vacation, but in reality, they were using this opportunity to flee across the border between Hungary and Austria to the West under the cover of darkness. Late that summer, a Newsweek correspondent and I hooked up in the middle of the night with an East German "passer" who would give East Germans a precise landscape map of how to escape across the Hungarian-Austrian frontier. That night, the "passer" introduced us to two young East German men who wanted to make it to the West. Only days before, Hungarian border guards had shot several East Germans trying to make it across. The four of us started out around 5 a.m., and after several hours of running and crawling, we found ourselves on the ground with a border watchtower in sight to our right. The two young East Germans were convinced we were now in Austria and free. I told them to stay down because I wasn't sure we were yet out of Hungary, but they didn't listen and both stood up. Suddenly, several Hungarian border guards jumped out of the bushes with rifles and barking German Shepherd dogs. I could now see a wire, 10 yards away, which marked the Hungarian-Austrian border. My heart was broken for these two young men, and convinced that the guards would not shoot, I threw my fist into the thigh of one of the two men and shouted, "Go!" With the speed and grace of a deer in flight, he took three strides and flew over the Hungarian-Austrian border – one of the most decisive life moments I had ever witnessed.

As the border guards fumbled with their rifles and the dogs barked, I shouted to the second East German to run, but this man, strongly built like a refrigerator, stood petrified and couldn't move. Afterwards, the Hungarian guards drove us in the back of a government pickup truck to a border post. The young man who had been arrested looked into the distance with a thousand-yard stare. I could see the tragic reality sinking into his heart, and soul, that his best friend from childhood was free in the West, while he would certainly be spending time in a Hungarian prison before being sent back to the dark and confining reality of his East German life. There was no way that we could know at that moment, that only a short while later, on Sept.10, 1989, the Hungarians would officially drop the border between Hungary and Austria, allowing thousands of East Germans to freely leave Hungary to go to West Germany. That day, while much less spoken of than November 9, when the Berlin Wall fell, was one of the most important moments leading to the end of the Iron Curtain.

While life in Eastern Europe before 1989 could be incredibly hard, no place except possibly Albania was as off the map with repression, and I dare say weirdness, as Romania. Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian leader and treacherous despot, had created a regime where Romanians lived under such terror that if they even had contact with a foreigner, they were obliged to go to the nearest police station to report it. I was one of a small number of foreign journalists to ever enter and work in Romania during the years prior to the Romanian Revolution in 1989. One of the most surreal experiences of my life and career occurred when I was granted an exclusive photo session with Nicolae Ceausescu four months before his execution in December 1989. I went with an editor and correspondent from Newsweek to Ceausescu's summerhouse near Snagov, outside of Bucharest. After a long interview, I walked with Ceausescu outside his home. Here I was face-to-face with one of the most feared dictators of modern times. He couldn't speak English, but could understand French. As I speak French like English, I had an amazing linguistic advantage, and I proceeded to direct Ceausescu and he obeyed me like an obedient child. I had him walk into a cornfield where he stood in the mud as I photographed him next to eye-high corn stalks. I had him walk out onto a dock over a pond and directed him to pose in profile. A correspondent, Michael Meyer, who witnessed this photo session, recalls in his recent book that during one quick moment while I photographed Ceausescu posing on the dock, he appeared to almost lose his balance, and all of his aides present shuttered with fear that he might fall into the water. This photo session, one of the only ones of Ceausescu in more than a decade by a western photographer, and the last one before he was killed, produced a photograph that was on the cover of Newsweek that next week.

Four months later, during the extremely violent days of the Romanian Revolution in December 1989, I found myself with Romanian revolutionaries in the private office of Ceausescu at the very moment that he was executed by a firing squad. While only four months prior I had been face-to-face with this dictator, I now found myself looking at this same face, lying dead on a hard concrete floor, on a television screen in his own office.

Often, when I consider some of the grand moments of geopolitical change in 1989, I think of individuals that crossed my path whose gestures and actions exemplified the poignant spirit that transformed our world that year.

I think of Claudia Sadowski, the courageous East German woman who helped me in 1989 get my film beyond the Iron Curtain. Those photographs showed East German Stasi repressing one of the first major and violent uprisings by East Germans fighting for greater freedom under the then Communist regime of Erich Honnecker. Claudia worked as my translator during the 40th Anniversary of the East German state. Having never traveled outside of East Berlin, she would ask with inquiring eyes what it was like to fly in an airplane, to go through a customs checkpoint, and what it was like to be free.

The East Germans had mistakenly given me a visa that lasted two days past the end of the anniversary celebrations. I took advantage of their bureaucratic error. As we drove together through the night in the East Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg that was at the heart of the resistance, we suddenly saw a startling scene. Under a subway overpass hundreds of young East Germans were throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the riot police of the East German Stasi who were retaliating with German Shepherds to attack the protesters. I knew that the West had rarely seen images of such scenes in East Germany.

We parked our car and I positioned myself behind several protesters as Claudia asked two men to allow me to balance my camera on their shoulders, in order to make a long exposure without flash, of the lineup of Stasi and their dogs that were biting protesters. After making many images, I was suddenly swept off my feet by several undercover police officers. I was sure that I would lose this important film as I was taken to a paddy wagon and asked to surrender my film and cameras.

Claudia whispered, "Say you are a guest at the anniversary ceremonies." I whispered back, "That's the last thing I should do." Finally, just as the agents were about to strip me of my cameras, I resorted to Claudia's suggestion: I declared myself a guest of the 40th Anniversary of East Germany. Suddenly the agents stopped, "Why didn't you tell us so?" And they let us go. Unbelievably, I was allowed to leave with my cameras and film.

The following morning at 6 a.m., I crossed the Iron Curtain on a subway car en route to West Berlin. I raced to the airport and flew to Hamburg, Germany, to show this film to Stern magazine. My images were immediately published prominently for all of Germany to see. Only later would the world discover that those preceding days would be among the last of the East German state. I look back at this moment, warmed by the thought of Claudia eventually experiencing the things she had asked about, and that she too would experience freedom.

One of the most moving and gratifying aspects of covering the years preceding the Fall of the Berlin Wall in Eastern Europe, and then being present during the roller coaster ride of the revolutions in Berlin, Prague and Bucharest in the late fall and early winter of 1989, was a shared camaraderie with so many talented, caring, and courageous photographers that were both friends and often at once competitors, with whom I shared not only mutual respect, but also a collective sense of being incredibly lucky to be alive and present at such monumental moments of historic geopolitical change.

The fall of the Berlin Wall itself on Nov. 9, 1989, and in the following days was not only one of the most historic moments of the world since World War II, but it was a happening for the community of international photojournalists. Almost every one of our working brethren was in Berlin during those days, and while assignments and guarantees were plentiful, almost anyone working at that time would have paid their own way if need be to have a front-row seat on that particular moment of history. I recall a distinct sense during those days of the Berlin Wall coming down, that we all felt conscious of being lucky to see such a moment, and as a community we relished being together and knew that what we were seeing and experiencing could never be taken from us, whatever else followed. November of 1989 was spent in Berlin and Prague, and December in Bucharest. During a short span of a few months that year, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in Prague, and the Romanian Revolution in Bucharest, the world fundamentally rearranged itself.

Twenty years have now passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dropping of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. It was a year in modern world history like few others. I had the extraordinary good fortune to witness firsthand all of the revolutions in Eastern Europe that year and this period not only affected the geopolitical life of the world in a decisive way, but impacted the personal life history of anyone present, including my own.

In 1986, I received a multiple entry visa to the Soviet Union as the accredited photographer for Newsweek magazine in order to cover the epicenter of what was then the biggest geopolitical story in the world, the Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev had only recently come to power, and immediately, glimmers of his policies of new openness and change, perestroika and glasnost, had begun to emerge. From that time forward, I followed Gorbachev on almost every one of his trips abroad as Soviet Premier. I made countless trips throughout the heartland of the Soviet Union to document the social and economic lives of the average Russian. During the three years preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall, I also made dozens of trips to other countries of the Communist Bloc, Romania, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland.

In 1987, Gorbachev strolled through the streets of Prague during a state visit to Czechoslovakia, and in the eyes, faces and gestures of the huge crowds of Czechs that lined the streets to see him, one could see powerful winds of change underfoot.

Over the next three years much of my life was consumed with the both challenging and compelling task of penetrating the Iron Curtain, and witnessing small rays of light beginning to illuminate the ominous darkness of life in the Eastern Bloc.

I was living in Paris at this time. Paris was less than four hours from the Berlin Wall by plane, and yet light years away from the austere grayness of life I would discover anytime I landed at an Eastern European airport, or after driving across Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin. This was a time when there were no cell phones, no Internet, no credit cards that worked east of West Berlin, and the only way that photographs for magazine reproduction could be published was if film was hand-carried back to the West.

I have covered much war and conflict over the past 25 years and have seen my share of combat, human hardship and suffering from war. I don't hesitate to say looking back that working as a photojournalist in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s required a special kind of mental and emotional toughness, as well as a healthy amount of cunning and perseverance. Anytime you crossed the Iron Curtain, you effectively went off the communications radar screen with the West. I will always remember the dark, ominous feeling of driving into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie by myself, and a sense that no one I knew would be able to have any contact with me from that point forward, and if anything would happen, it wouldn't be sure at all that anyone would know about it. For me, the ever-present tension and stress producing realities of the secretive world of the Eastern Bloc could induce as powerful, though different, an amount of anxiety and flow of adrenaline as the world of direct military combat. There was also the ever-present satisfaction and sense of tremendous empowerment knowing that one's photographs could communicate a precise reality of a world that few Westerns had any direct contact with.

Any of my colleagues that worked in the Eastern Bloc during these years would agree with me that there was a true John Le Carré aspect to not only the atmosphere and texture of this Eastern European world, but also to many of the aspects of working there.

I recall slipping into East Germany many times during the fall of 1989. It was possible for an American to obtain a 24-hour tourist visa to visit East Berlin, but if East German border guards caught you with more than one camera in your car, your equipment would be confiscated after you were held for six hours at the austere border post on the eastern side of Checkpoint Charlie. Throughout the summer and early fall of 1989, East German dissidents protested en masse every Monday night in the provincial town of Leipzig, about three hours by car from East Berlin. The challenge was to get to Leipzig by 6 p.m. for the demonstration, and then make it back to East Berlin before midnight to cross back over the Iron Curtain before your 24-hour visa expired. The roads between Leipzig and East Berlin were very bad, two-lane highways, often made of cobblestones. I will always remember the underlying terror of leaving Leipzig at 9:30 p.m., and driving often between 90 and 110 miles per hour, sometimes on wet roads, in order to make it back across the border before midnight with my film. The constant fear during the wild drive back of being arrested by the Stasi was as powerful as almost any combat stress I've ever experienced.

I think back to the amazing energy and power that I witnessed, when humans stood up as individuals and gathered collectively, to fight and risk their existence for a sense of a more productive, creative, and free life. Nowhere was this power more evident than in Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution in Prague in mid-November 1989. Nightly, for a period of a few weeks, hundreds of thousands of Czech citizens turned up under the darkness in the cold Prague air to stand together to listen as revolution leaders like Alexander Dubcek and Vaclav Havel spoke to them from a balcony window. Each evening, every one of those thousands of ordinary Czech individuals made the extraordinary gesture of taking out of their pockets their keys, to raise them in the air and jingle them, as an irrefutable means of not only acknowledging, but of demanding that only they, and no one else, could lock or unlock control of their future and destiny. Hearing these thousands of keys being shaken together created music of freedom my ears can never forget.

I'm not sure that it is true for everyone, but occasionally the memories that I have looking back at my photographic experiences that move me the most are not the ones with the most apparent drama, but rather those of the fabric and texture of dignity, grace and courage, of moments and people I've witnessed emerge in the quiet aftermath of important events. I want to end with one such moment that always brings tears to my eyes when I think of it.

Throughout my career, being based in Paris, starting with my first travels in 1984, the reality of my professional life was constantly influenced and touched by the wonderful cadre of great photographers working for the dynamic photo agencies based in Paris, Gamma, Sipa, and Sygma. I had learned so much from the spirit of these agencies and their photographers – the joy of traveling, a sense that there was no place on earth where one couldn't go, and the more difficult it was to get there, the more interesting the challenge. I had also learned from this group what true courage, perseverance, speed and grace were all about.

One of the unwritten rules for anyone based in Paris during those years was that if anyone ever asked you to carry their film back from a distant place, you did it without asking any questions. You could also expect the same in return. And, of course, you would never forget if someone refused to help and you knew the same would be true in return. We carried each other's packages of film from all over the world, often with the most amazing logistics.

During the extremely violent and cold days of the Romanian Revolution in 1989, on one particular early day of this historic revolution, a messenger that had been entrusted by many photographers from one of the French agencies left Bucharest by train with a huge bag of their film of this monumental event – documents that could never be replaced. The atmosphere of the moment was extremely tense and grave. More than a thousand Romanians had been killed during this revolution and a French colleague, Jean-Louis Calderon, had died the night before in Palace Square, crushed by an armored vehicle. I had not shipped that day because I had just arrived that morning. A day later, we all heard that somehow the messenger of the aforementioned shipment had lost all of this film; it never arrived in Paris. I had never lost a roll of film before, and I remember feeling sick for my colleagues who had risked their lives for those images.

When I left Bucharest on a plane bound for Paris shortly after the Romanian Revolution was over a few days after Christmas of 1989, many of the photographers who had lost their film were on the plane with me. In contrast to the euphoria experienced in Berlin and Prague only a month earlier, the flight home from Bucharest was full of mental images of the cold funerals of the more than 1,000 civilians killed during this revolution, and of a lost colleague. We were all quite tired and the flight home to Paris was long and very quiet. I will always remember when we landed in Paris that day, after clearing customs, several directors and news editors of the three major French agencies were standing there waiting for their photographers. As each of the photographers walked out of customs, they were greeted with a handshake or a hug, and were told thank you. And I will always remember the dignity of this moment; I neither saw nor heard anyone whining or complaining, though hearts were incredibly heavy, and it had to be even more difficult for those who had lost all of their film. There was a sense that choosing a way of life and profession that involved being present and documenting history was noble in itself, and that one could be proud to have done one's best and tried, and proud to be a member of our photographic family.

© Peter Turnley

Peter Turnley is a renowned international photojournalist who has photographed most of the world's major news stories and important world figures and personalities in the past three decades. His photographs have graced the cover of Newsweek 43 times. His images are consistently published in the world's most prestigious publications. He has published numerous multi-page photo essays on themes of national and international pertinence in Harper's Magazine. He has won the Overseas Press Club Award and many awards from the World Press Photo competition. He has degrees from the University of Michigan, the Sorbonne, L'Institut d'Etudes Politiques of Paris, and has done a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. He has two honorary doctorate degrees. He has published five books of his work: "Parisians," "McClellan Street," "Beijing Spring," "In Times of War and Peace," and "Moments of Revolution."

Turnley is a widely respected teacher of photographic workshops, and his workshops in Buenos Aires, Rio, Paris, Calcutta, Seville, Istanbul, Provence, and New York can be found on his Web site at: http://peterturnley.com/workshops.html. He is also an acclaimed lecturer and has taught at Harvard, University of Iowa, University of Michigan, the Danish National School of Journalism, NYU, and Parsons School of Design. He resides in both New York and Paris. Peter Turnley's images are represented worldwide by Corbis. Fine art prints of his work can be purchased through his Web site: http://peterturnley.com.

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