I was there
Steve Eason on the fall of the Berlin Wall
What a lot people don’t think about with the fall of the Berlin Wall is that it didn’t happen all at once. It began in November 1989, but by December, when I arrived, I saw plenty of children with chisels, taking it down piece by piece.
I was 25 when I took this picture. I grew up in Middlesbrough and studied photography. I thought eastern Europe would be a good place to take pictures and record a moment in history.
I started in Czechoslovakia, where the mood was relatively calm and the protests felt like a well-organised bid for democracy. But the problems were clear: it was difficult to find food, so people flocked to street stalls selling homemade (and horrendously sweet) liqueurs, which made you forget your hunger for a while.
From there I got the train to Berlin, the most tense part of my trip. It was an old-fashioned one, like something from the 1940s. I sat in an empty compartment, which to my dismay filled with Russian soldiers. I turned my Walkman on and tried not to make eye contact with them. Luckily they got off at the next stop.
I spent two weeks in Berlin, walking around looking for things to photograph. There were fresh food shortages in East Germany. Although there were always sausages, there was no bread, so you got your hot dog in a piece of folded-up cardboard instead of a bun.
I was there at Christmas, but you couldn’t tell on the eastern side as there were few decorations. I shot photographs in black and white, which suited East Berlin, a very grey place.
I remember waking up on Christmas morning and finding the hotel staff had left me some chocolate. Later I went out and walked by the Wall. A long line of East Berliners were going through a checkpoint for a glimpse of the decorations in the West, before immediately returning through the next gate, never leaving the queue. This picture shows two eastern border guards helping a child skip the queue a few days after Christmas:
they lifted up little ones to see the lights on the other side, before lowering them down again. I shot it on a small Olympus camera, which helped me to blend in with the crowd.
The authorities were losing order by this point. I saw a group of children climbing on a police car as the police looked on with no idea of what to do.
It became slightly more festive on New Year’s Eve, when there were firework displays in both parts of Berlin. People climbed on the Wall to get the best views, bringing East German flags with them – the hammer and sickle cut out.
As the night wore on it became a free-for-all and the guards totally lost control of the border. I think a few people woke up on the wrong side of the Wall on New Year’s Day.
When I got home, I started working as a dark room technician for a company that became Getty Images, where I’ve been ever since. Witnessing the fall of the Wall inspired me to take more photographs of protests and I went shortly after to shoot the poll tax riots.
I have fond memories of that time, in part because I was so young, energetic and reckless. It was exciting – you could feel that change was coming. I feel very nostalgic about it all. My only regret? I wish I still had that little camera.
‘Guards were lifting up children so they could see the Christmas lights’ Photographer Steve Eason remembers taking this picture at the fall of the Berlin Wall Began 30 years ago today