She Crossed Into West Germany and Handed The Officer a Flower

She Crossed Into West Germany and Handed The Officer a Flower

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.

Lines of cars cross through a make-shift border crossing that was cut in a fence in the intra-German border near Hof, West Germany on Nov. 10, 1989. The borders between East and West Germany had been opened earlier for the first time in nearly 40 years. ©1989 Scott A. Miller

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.

Nov. 10, 1989: Cars stream from East to West along the intra-German border near Hof, West Germany. © 1989 Scott A. Miller

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.

Nov. 10, 1989: A car pauses as it crosses the intra-German border near Hof, West Germany as a woman hands a flower to a West German police officer at the border. ©1989 Scott A. Miller

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.

An East German policeman peers through a hole in the Berlin Wall to talk to a passer by on the West Berlin side. The hole was cause by people hammering on the Wall after the borders were opened on Nov. 9, 1989. ©1989 Scott A. Miller

Fall of the Berlin Wall. Opening of the Berlin Wall, West Berlin, Germany, November 1989. ©1989 Scott A. Miller

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.

A couple embraces after they crossed the intra-German border near Helmstedt, West Germany on Nov. 9, 1989. The borders between East and West Germany had been opened earlier in the day for the first time in nearly 40 years. ©1989 Scott A. Miller

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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There are 8 comments for this article
  1. Max at 5:35 am

    “This was 1989, after all. There was no autofocus and no ability to “fix it in post.””

    F4s is an autofocus camera. First version of Photoshop was available in March 1989.

    • Dan M at 8:06 pm

      As a sport photographer during those years and using the Nikon F4s I can tell you that the autofocus system of that time was not in any way reliable in fast action photography especially if your subject was off-center. You still have to rely on prefocus anticipation and work through your image.

    • Dan M at 8:10 pm

      Many photographers in that time were still equipped with Nikkor AI and Ais lenses. Your photo department for example make gradualy the switch many years after. Lastly the first Nikon autofocus series was not really considered at the same quality of construction level compare to older AI and AIs lenses.

    • Lando at 8:41 am

      East and West Germany were separated in the years at the end of WW2. Movement was restricted and freedoms were curtailed. So yes, the author is correct, families hadn’t seen each other for 40 years.

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