This is the latest in our One Photo series, where photographers share their most meaningful photo and the story behind it.
We asked photographer Scott Miller to share the story behind this image he took at the border of West Germany in 1989. Here’s what he said.
The East Bloc was in turmoil as people protested for open borders and free elections. Refugees were escaping. Then on the evening of November 9, 1989, word came that the East German government was opening its borders with the West for the first time in decades.
Those four days in November 1989 (November 9th – November 12th) are still vivid in my mind. As an American growing up in West Germany, I had traveled to East Germany and Berlin several times. I was 22 when the Wall came down, so being able to document the history happening in my backyard was life changing.
At the time, I was working at the European edition of Stars and Stripes in Germany. I had returned home after four years in college, and was lucky enough to land a job. So when the news broke, three of our staff photographers headed to Berlin. I took a gamble and went to the borders that night, eventually making my way to Hof the next morning. It was November 10, 1989.
I was with a colleague photographing cars crossing into the West. Just hours earlier, the border between the two countries had opened for the first time in 40 years.
As I stood just feet inside of West Germany, there were two police officers waving to cars crossing past the red, black and gold post on the road into the West. It was all fairly routine, until this car slowed and a woman leaned out to hand a flower to the West Germany police officer. I instinctively pushed the shutter button hoping everything was right.
I made this image with my Nikon F4s on Fuji Chrome 100. I am not sure of the lens, but I would guess a 24mm f2.8 and fill flash, which was key. So having my head in the right place and making adjustments on the fly was important. This was 1989, after all. There was no autofocus and no ability to “fix it in post.” And of course, because I happen to be in the right place at the right time, there was a bit of luck involved.
I made thousands of photos over the next few months as the country crumbled – photos along the borders and photos in Berlin as people hammered away at the wall. At one point, I even became the first American photojournalist allowed on an army base in the East.
Photographing families being reunited for the first time in 40 years and younger people coming to the West for the first time was very moving and historic. As a photojournalist, it made for great images and it was not lost on me that I was documenting one of the biggest events in the past 50 years.
The year 1989 was filled with political change. What started in Tiananmen Square in the Spring and continued worldwide was a movement that brought down governments, many in the East Bloc.
Being on the front lines and photographing history, coupled with the sheer joy on the woman’s face in that photo is why I became a photojournalist. For me, this image expresses everything — the smile on the woman’s face, the eye contact with the West German police officer, his expression. And the fact that the border marker is just few feet behind the car in the background sets the place and helps tell the story. I made thousands of images along the border and the Berlin Wall, but none will come close to telling the entire story as that one did.
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