A portly man wearing a cranberry-colored cardigan stands uncomfortably still, his hands clasped together over the paunch of his belly. Behind tinted sunglasses his downcast gaze is awkward, avoidant. But wait, there he is again ... or is he? This man in the next frame -- possibly, obviously the same man -- in a long shaggy brown coat and Ushanka style faux-fur cap, is wearing the same sunglasses but now there's a dark swipe of a mustache under his nose that wasn't there before.
There are others just like him posing in self-conscious stance with impassive expressions -- a tourist impossibly conspicuous in bright red pants, outfitted with not one but two cameras; a somber-faced woman in casual jeans and a forgettable black leather jacket is later "transformed" donning a lush winter coat, her hair tucked under a fur cap, gold earrings dangling. These men and women were trained to blend in; they were trained to infiltrate, observe, and inform. They were Stasi agents, part of the East German secret police.
During its heyday, the Stasi had more agents in its employ than either the KGB or the CIA, relative to overall population size. Nazi hunter Simon Weisenthal ominously declared that the Stasi were worse than the Gestapo. When East Germany collapsed in 1989, the Stasi had 102,000 employees.
German artist Simon Menner spent two years poring over materials from the archive of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives of the German Democratic Republic from which he pulled and curated a trove of photos (likely taken in the early 1980s) for his forthcoming book Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives. His objective, in part, was to show "the act of surveillance from the perspective of the surveillant."
Menner warns his readers that they should not dismiss these photographs and all they capture as farce or comedy, even with the terrible wigs and painfully obvious attire. "Many of the images reproduced here might appear absurd or even funny to us," he writes in the book's introduction. "But it is important not to lose sight of the original intentions behind these pictures. They concern photographic records of the repression exerted by the state to subdue it own citizens." For Menner it is the very "banality" of these images that "makes them even more repulsive."