Picturing the Past: The Berlin Wall at 25

Rachel Somerstein (SUNY, New Paltz, USA)

Summary of the Project


The Berlin Wall’s opening on November 9, 1989, was a highly-mediated, largely visual event: television networks, newspapers, and magazines from the U.S. to Moscow showed still and moving pictures of crowds celebrating at Brandenburg Gate, dismantling the Wall, and exploring West Germany. In the 25 years since, these images, once breaking news, have been republished in a wide variety of print, broadcast, and Web-based media, documentary and fictional films (i.e. Goodbye Lenin, 2008), even video games (Call of Duty-Berlin Wall). But how did the news media mark – or neglect – the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s opening, and what images did they use to do so?

Research Questions

What images did print newspapers use to mark the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s opening?

What stories about the past do these images tell, and what collective memories do they occlude or suppress?

What is the relationship between these images and the texts (captions, stories) to which they are juxtaposed?

Theoretical Framework

All photographs are inherently biased. As David Perlmutter (1997) writes, “no lens is wide enough to capture reality” because of a shot’s angle, lighting, and omissions and inclusions of subjects in the frame. These qualities are amplified in newspapers, where photographs appear singularly, having been selected from among the images taken just before and after (to say nothing of mechanical manipulations with Photoshop).

Yet we vest photographs – much as we do journalists – with the capacity to tell an objective truth. This is in part because a photograph is indexical: it documents an object that once stood in front of a camera. The “trace” of that real object imbues photographs with their seeming truthfulness (Olin, 2013). For commemorative reporting that recycles previously published images, that truthfulness is amplified by the photographs’ seeming historical authority. Re-published anniversary photography’s authority is derived, then, from their being photographs, archival documents, and news (objective, nonfictional) images. In turn, these authoritative photographs – many of which are iconic – form, circulate, and reinforce collective memories (Lorenzo-Dus & Bryan 2011, 282). Many times, these singular images are deployed to stand in for the whole story (Keith, 2010).

But so many of these iconic, frequently circulated images, as Zelizer (1998) observed, do as much to help us remember as to forget: the memories that they summon are often narrow and correspond to hegemonic versions of the past. In that way, mass-mediated images of history construct and vivify the past while they also constrict it.

Different countries, different pasts. Though the past cannot be altered, journalistic versions of the same “past” can differ from place to place and publication to publication. In part these differences emerge because of the ideological climate in each country, which manifests at the level of news content, the way stories are framed, even which stories make it into the news (Shoemaker & Reese, 2014). For instance, in the decades following 1989, Li and Lee (2013) found that elite U.S. newspapers filtered their anniversary reportage of the Berlin Wall’s opening and events at Tiananmen Square through an “anti-Communist” ideology; Keith (2010) found that Parisian dailies excluded images of U.S. soldiers from 60th anniversary coverage of Paris’s liberation from the Nazis, in part because of concurrent tensions with the U.S. Some past events don’t make anniversary coverage at all, perhaps because of government interference (Su, 2012:291). And even within the same country, proximity to an event such as the 9/11 attacks seems to shape a newspaper story’s tenor and type of anniversary coverage (Britten, 2013). Thus, in these ways, anniversary stories do as much to tell us about the past as to demonstrate ideological values and extra-media influences active in the place doing the remembering.


I purchased the Nov. 9, 2014 edition of 19 global newspapers from newsstands and Universal News on Demand, a reprinting service. I selected these newspapers based on languages for which I have a basic reading ability, and endeavored to obtain mostly elite papers from around the world. But not all of the newspapers I initially sought were available at all, and only editions from Nov. 7 (Jerusalem Post) and Nov. 8 (Frankfurter Allegmeine) were available for two papers.

I logged all relevant images along with their captions and positions (section, page, size) within the newspaper, noting which are archival and which contemporary. I then embarked on a close reading of the photographs, looking for themes and patterns across the images. To reckon with silences around the Berlin Wall’s anniversary, I also considered the papers in which no anniversary coverage appeared. Last, in treating the photographs as image/texts (Mitchell, 1994), I looked to the relationships between images and their captions. In so doing, I assessed the captions’ specificity (regarding time, place, and events depicted), which I took as a proxy for the degree to which the photographs are considered significantly iconic to activate memory and stand in for the whole story of the Wall’s opening.


Preliminary results: The vast majority (16 of 19) of the papers commemorated the Wall’s opening in some way. Although the length, prominence, and sections in which these stories appeared vary, it is notable that the anniversary made news, in some form, across disparate countries, political orientations, and media systems. To that end, it seems as if Germany – or at least the Wall’s opening – is a sufficiently significant “national other” (Li & Lee, 2013:833) to make the news in the vast majority of these countries. And though the overrepresentation of English-language papers may skew these results, because they are presumably oriented to similar, if not overlapping, audiences, it is worth noting that only English-language papers did not recognize the anniversary (Jerusalem Post, the Australian, and the Moscow Times).

The commemoration of this anniversary was also highly visual. All but one (Le Monde) of the newspapers ran at least one photograph to accompany the story. Further, with the vast majority of these images cohering to one of two types, two widely-agreed upon icons seem to have emerged: The first shows people standing atop the Wall, Brandenburg Gate behind them; the second, a man striking at the Wall with a hammer. While the very same version of these images did not appear in each publication, the photographs resemble one another in content, perspective, lighting, and framing.

Emphasis on non-journalist interpreters of the past. Many of the longer pieces that appeared in these materials are authored not by journalists but by novelists, artists, and critics such as Haruki Murakami (Corierre della Sera) and Will Self (Guardian Weekly); critic Timothy Garton Ash (El Pais); a former ambassador, A Madhura (Times of India); and composer Daniel Barenboim (la Repubblica). Der Tagesspiegel even advertised on its front page that the contributors include such cultural authorities as filmmaker Wim Wenders, artist Christo, MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach, and German actor Sebastian Urzendowsky. In part, the selection of these writers and artists may be explained by the personal and reflective nature of anniversary journalism; their appearance shows how far outside traditional journalism such anniversary reportage is. But what’s especially interesting is that although the writers have some personal connection to the Wall’s opening, their real authority on the topic seems to emerge from their cultural authority, which speaks both to the newspapers’ intentions (these pieces really differ from ‘news’) and, perhaps, the constraints of the profession (journalists are to be objective, to deal with observable facts, but not to truck with metaphor, myth, feeling).

The relationship between these texts, which are juxtaposed with widely-circulated, widely-agreed upon iconic images of the Berlin Wall’s opening, seems noteworthy. In such juxtapositions, the photographs function as the authoritative, nonfictional representation of the past. This is an inversion of the more-typical relationship between text and image: more often, text fixes a photograph’s meaning (as captions do); but here, the more slippery, more liquid medium seems to be the text, not the image.


Britten, Bob. 2013. Putting memory in its place. Journalism Studies, 14(4): 602-617.

Keith, Susan. 2010. Collective memory and the end of Occupation: remembering (and forgetting) the liberation of Paris in images. Visual Communication Quarterly 17(3): 134-146.

Kress, Gunther R. & Van Leeuwen, Theo. 2006. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. London: Routledge.

Li, Hongtao & Lee, Chin-Chuan. 2013. Remembering Tiananmen and the Berlin Wall: the elite U.S. press’s anniversary journalism, 1990-2009. Media, Culture & Society, 35(7): 830-846.

Lorenzo-Dus, Nuria & Bryan, Annie. 2011. Dynamics of memory: commemorating 7/7 in British television news discourse. Memory Studies, 4(3): 281-297.

Mitchell, William J.T. 2012. Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mitchell, William J.T. 1994. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Olin, Margaret. 2013. Touching Photographs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Perlmutter, David. 1997. A picture’s worth 8,500,000 people: American news pictures as symbols of China. Visual Communication Quarterly, 4(20): 4-7.

Shoemaker, Pamela & Reese, Steve. 2014. Mediating the Message in the 21st Century: a media sociology perspective (3rd ed.). London: Routledge.

Su, Chiaoning. 2012. One earthquake, two tales: narrative analysis of the tenth anniversary coverage of the 921 earthquake in Taiwan. Media, Culture & Society, 34(3): 280-295.

Zelizer, Barbie. 2014. “Memory as foreground, journalism as background.” In Journalism and memory, edited by Barbie Zelizer and Keren Tenenboim-Weinblatt, 32-49. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Zelizer, Barbie. 1998. Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera’s Eye. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Methodological Reflections

Methodological Potentials

Comparative international media research can be difficult because of researchers’ limited language skills. Analyzing photographs provides a way for researchers to access media in multiple languages. In that way, a visual approach can offer scholars with limited foreign-language skills opportunities to conduct international, intercultural scholarly work. Further, given the significance of images to mass-mediated memory, this method is useful for elucidating the kinds of visual memories that journalism circulates about the past, as well as the memories – and the images – that do not appear.

Methodological Challenges

The international component of this work makes this inductive, close-reading difficult. I do not know how much culturally-specific material to draw upon in explaining my reading, nor how much to look to comparative media systems, newspapers’ political orientations, differing degrees of press freedom, or the nations’ proximity to Germany in explaining my findings. I am presently struggling with the degree to which this method can privilege the photograph as its own language that is universal across cultures (per Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006).

The difficulty of obtaining these newspapers highlights another key challenge of conducting a visual study of newspapers: the researcher requires actual copies or microfilm editions, because online databases such as Lexis-Nexis typically do not include images. Microfilm can be costly to obtain through interlibrary loan. Some institutions do not loan it out at all. Traveling to an archive to examine materials on microfilm can be expensive and time-consuming.

Last, assessing absences and silences is difficult. To what, if any, external data should this project look to shed light on absences? Should the researcher look to coverage from 1989? To other social-scientific (i.e. unemployment) and historical sources about what it was „really“ like when the Wall opened?

Methodological Limitations

Close readings are subjective and not easily replicated. This method is also difficult given the number of images collected for this project: 122, 65 of which come from Der Tagesspiegel. Such a large number may be too many for a close reading. Yet, pairing a content analysis with a close reading also seems problematic: including the images from Der Tagesspiegel, which is overrepresented, might skew the data; eliminating Der Tagesspiegel would leave too few photographs.

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