1980. In Berlin. by Heiko Sievers

Already from the title, we  know more than enough. This book will give us a ride to a city whose social conditions where unseen in the rest of post-war Europe. No other place in the West was more subventioned. In West-Berlin, there was all the modernity of the Free World but not its commercial compulsions. It was the ultimate magnet for those who wanted to explore alternative ways of living and thinking.  Nobody was asked to pursue any sort of ambitions.  There was no military service to fulfill, there were no financial traps. Artists and mere dreamers disposed of all the time they needed. It was kinky and it was for free. It was Europe’s wicked city!

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© Heiko Sievers

Heiko Sievers was born in West-Berlin and he was 28 years old when he worked in Michael Schmidt‘s Workshop for Photography in Kreuzberg. He published his work only in 2016 with Peperoni Books, 35 years after date: 1980. In Berlin.

As soon as we open the book, we find ourselves on the city’s public transport network. That is where nearly all of the photographs are made. We meet many old ladies. They look frail and lost in thought. We realize that we cannot ask them too many questions. We also see many younger German citizens that are silently on their way to their workplaces, determined to fully restore the still tarnished name of their country. “Ran an die Buletten!” they seem to think. And we see some workers from far away countries, the brave pioneers of later migration waves. Heiko’s Germany had turned the warmonger’s page!

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© Heiko Sievers

But in 1980, Heiko choose not to focus on the successful reconstruction of the western sectors of Berlin. His images lead us beyond the immediate surroundings of a regular German guy and we discover the eye he had for the innumerable outsiders: all the creative people, the utopians, the visionaries and the artists that were drawn to Berlin. What mattered for the photographer, was the dynamics of this counterculture within his own. And he sympathizes with the counterforces!


© Heiko Sievers

His style also moves beyond regular documentary realism and is highly subjective. About all the different kinds of people he photographed, he writes: “I have never found out what actually moved, oppressed or delighted them. I saw, or better still, found an “took” what corresponded to my sense of life in Berlin and what drew my attention as an image. Therefore the photographs are neither portraiture nor documentation. They do not tell the stories of the people they show, but in fact only my own story. Yet the images capture fragments of the state of mind of other people in Berlin in those years and thus record moments of life in that city.”


© Heiko Sievers

The lead about his work is meaningful because 1980. In Berlin. is not particularly a joyful story.  Although Heiko is always revealing a beautiful tenderness in his subjects, we are gettting in the first place a depressing and drab sense of life in Berlin. Many of his pictures are breathing a melancholic sense of being at the loss. Did the photographer start to realize that it would become difficult for subventioned oustiders? Did he start to acknowledge that eventually there would be a special bill to be paid?


© Heiko Sievers

Since he deliberately portrayed West-Berlin “in exclusively grey shades, no colour at all, and very little future either” he may already have felt that Berlin’s fate as a city with a special status was unsure. In a filthy men’s room we can read “Elend wird kommen!” (misery will come); “Atemnot” (cannot breathe)…..As if he knew that forces would come that would drain the dreamers’ oasis.


© Heiko Sievers

But, without spoiling the storyline, 1980. In Berlin. is offering much more than gloomy predictions about the fate of the Berliner counterforces. Many sideplots are incorporated in this book. We are for example intrigued by the role played by a young woman who looks a bit like Marlene Dietrich. We see her more than once. And just before the end, we are given a clue of how the future can  look bright even for the most pessimistic defeatists. From the last image, we can learn that the future remains an open road, also for those who counted on the infamous Wall to be shielded away from the so-called real world. Maybe some of them have paid a heavy price after the Wall came down, but only a  few will have regretted their crazy rides in West-Berlin. And West-Berlin survives in this book anyway ……. Thanks a lot Mr. Sievers!


© Heiko Sievers