Investigating dictatorship and totalitarian systems using the example of Communist abuse of power by the secret intelligence service of East Germany, known as Stasi is the project Hotel of Eternal Light by Karolina Spolniewski (b.1988, Poland). The body of work was primarily shot in the former hidden Stasi prison in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen which serves as the main symbol of political persecution and oppression. In light of current political events of totalitarian exercise of power, this work aims to address what our freedom actually consists of in severe times of loneliness and how much potential the inner urge for it reveals.
In this interview, Spolniewski talks about The Hotel of Eternal Light and her future plans with the project.
Why did you decide to focus on the Stasi and the Communist regime?
Now in retrospect, my work on the Stasi has a bit of a serendipitous element to it. I started out as a BA student in a documentary photography class and I was drawn to every single thing I learned by going to the prison and listening to ex-prisoners’ stories. I simply could not stop spending winters there only observing the light. I couldn’t grasp what an ocean of highly-manufactured cruelties the Stasi was administering only because people wanted to live freely.
My parents and I escaped from a totalitarian communist Poland. So I guess, my general urge to deal with forms of freedom or the anticipated absence of it is connected to the subject matter. And even in the back of my head, it always was present to me, we also could have been arrested for this „crime“ and ended up in one of these communist chambers of torture.
Do you see a resemblance to the political landscape today?
For me, democracy is always under threat. Now everybody is talking about freedom. Great and really important to open our eyes eventually. Despite the sad recent event of the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, there has been a rise in totalitarianism for a few years. Fascist tendencies all over eastern Europe, the US, or totalitarian communists in Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba, etc.
Light plays an important role in your series, could you please share with our readers why you chose it as the main element?
It sounds nonchalant, but I didn’t choose it initially. I just picked up on what was already there but what caught my attention. The lights were literally in my face. I hope I’m not getting in trouble by saying this: It was almost like being called by the sound of Stasi sirens. I then decided to specifically limit myself and explore this thread. Also, I understood that no one else touched on that element before in plenty of publications existing on that topic. Of course, the more I exposed myself to the whole Stasi machinery and the more I dived into their archives, the ones I was permitted access to, the more I could formulate my perspective, connect the various elements, and make sense of their meaning.
There were two main books that inspired the course of your work – Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt and The Uncanny by Sigmund Freud. Why these two books in particular?
As a trained psychologist I’m always curious about the origins and causes of individual and collective human phenomena which aren’t explicit. I mean, how could a whole nation like Germany be brainwashed three times in a row within only one century? It’s a real mystery to me. But in fact, it’s not.
The author who strongly speaks to me emphasizing these tendencies is Hannah Arendt and also Stefan Zweig. A. is referring to the way in which ‘ideology’ had been used as a desire to divorce thinking from action. She beautifully explained how a nation can turn into loneliness. Perfect preparation for totalitarian domination in a non-totalitarian world. It creates wilderness, where neither new experience nor thinking is possible, briefly said.
Walking through the prison and its secret hospital I experienced a strange familiarity. I was magnetically reminded of my childhood in Poland with many similar fabrics, patterns, and distinct colors that you did not see outside communism in that combination in the 21 century. For example, the way in which the interrogation rooms were designed as a blunt absurdity: Homy warm wallpapers, full of flowers, subtleties, and invitations to make you feel at ease, to make you confess more gently, apparently: to make you confess things you never did. The prisoner just was made to feel reminded of home. The Stasi officers were highly trained in human behavior and how to discreetly manipulate their subjects into fatal desperation and longing. Pure evil. All very much non-brutal on the surface and in a non-violent manner. And while being influenced by psychoanalysis and the writings of Sigmund Freud during my psych studies, his theory of The Uncanny instantly screamed at me. Something so haunting and disturbing that touches so deeply on the quality of feeling. Beautiful and wrong at the same time. That’s why I chose to work with that contradiction.
You have a background in psychology, how do you see it reflected in your work?
One of the reasons why I became a psychologist was that I thought and still think: the human mind is such an exciting novel, more real than any thrilling horror film, and the most beautiful poem. I guess my work might be seen as a continuation of this need to want to understand people and in particular, here understand their malevolence and see why suffering plays out so differently in people. It does not matter if I have a camera in my hand or sit opposite somebody.
These two disciplines to me are very similar: You learn to observe thoroughly. And every single thing that has been said and sometimes to a greater degree that has been left out, what is hidden. Sure we listen as well as psychologists.
You know, before I took the portraits of the former inmates I would talk to them over and again years and months before. Not taking my camera with me in order to get to know them. I didn’t want to intrude too much, since this is such a diligent and (for many a) traumatic realm, I was entering. I think that the ability to establish trust is very much informed by my other work as well as the patience that I had to develop professionally, meaning to stop myself from the need to understand too quickly and rushing to conclusions too soon. It enabled me to go back there and observe seemingly „nothing new“. But believe me, I’m quite impatient by temperament, so there were many many “unprofessional” and frustrating moments.
You worked on this project for about seven years, when was the point when you knew that it was finished?
At one point 2 years ago after living with my work hanging on my walls for constant exposure, I decided: It has to come to an end and it has to become a book – NOW. Otherwise, it would have taken hold of me endlessly. Also, I had a strong need to move on and close that big chapter in my life. Then I received a grant for this project, which allowed me to finish my portraits. This was the last element that needed to be done for the idea of the book I had in mind. You know a project is never finished, like a forbidden love affair that tastes too good but is eating you up. You just have to force yourself and stop. At least I had to. And still „I need to finish now“ took me 2 years….
Apart from documentary photographs taken at the former hidden Stasi prison in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, your project also includes scans of traces, photography of objects belonging to inmates, portraits of former inmates, X-ray scans, archive pictures and text fragments of memories from conversations with ex-prisoners. How are you planning to combine all these elements in your upcoming book?
As I’m reading your question now I think: Oh fuck, right there are so many fragmented elements, nicely put, what a mess! But yes, that’s exactly the chaos I needed to transmit the experience of torture and the destruction of the psyche of the people were undergoing in the prison. It also refers to how our memory is stored and reconstructed. I will combine all elements being guided by the perspective of the prisoner and by the first-hand experiences that I tracked in the interviews with them.
After completing this project, what is your idea of freedom?
That it’s always worth fighting for – no matter what the consequences might look like. Having a spine is non-negotiable.
is a Polish photographer and film-maker based in Berlin. She graduated from the Technical University in Berlin with an MSc in Psychology in 2011. Immigrated to Germany as a political refugee after escaping from totalitarian Poland as a child. In her work, she explores the radical human experience of not belonging to the world. A central role plays the relationship between power (ab)use and self-image.
The Hotel of Eternal Light was awarded the BlowUp Press Award this year and will soon be formed into a photobook.