Women at Work
(Weiss Publications, 2022)
During the Cold War in the Eastern Bloc, where visual propaganda helped establish a national image, artists used cameras for both documentary and dissent. Western media has embraced, perhaps unsurprisingly, those who favored the latter, emphasizing their resistance to Soviet censorship. This framing only tells half the story and leaves out, for example, gender equality in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). A new photobook, Women at Work, corrects the record through the work of Helga Paris, an East German photographer renowned for her portraits of working women. The book includes a curated set of forty-nine photographs—taken from her 1984 series “Women at the Treff-Modelle Clothing Factory”—accompanied by a short biography and interview with art critic Oliver Zybok in German and English, reflecting the artist’s desire to let her work speak for itself.
For Paris, politics was secondary to her love for everyday people. “I approached photography with an amateur’s gaze,” she once said. “After all, amateur means lover.” Black-and-white pictures of garment workers appear professionally staged, yet the preparation and shooting process was quite casual. Much like her sitters, Paris earned her daily bread and socialized at East Berlin beer halls, recognizing herself in the anonymous masses that became her muse.
“I’ve always been drawn to the everyday, the unspectacular,” Paris once wrote. As opposed to the flashy individualism of Western fashion, many of the women here are dressed in similarly-patterned dresses and skirts, achieving uniqueness in posture and expression. Because Paris never used flash, natural light establishes focal points on each face. “The composition seems clearer, so you abstract more of what you see, which makes the subject more memorable,” she told Zybok.
Paris’s “factory girls” were never glamorized and rarely exhibited, yet they represent a period in which women had many of the same rights as men in the workplace.1 As a young mother, Paris interned at the publicly-owned factory before being commissioned by the Society for Photography. She briefly details her positive reception among former coworkers: “I was so enthusiastic that I spontaneously sewed on the assembly line myself; some of the women still knew me.”
Colorful clothing, hair, and makeup are rendered monochromatic, as evident in the cover photo of a woman on a smoke break. In another shot of a brunette, whose floral-print dress merges with the wallpaper, you can see the cut-off side profile of the covergirl across the table—perhaps implying that both shots were taken in the span of one cigarette. Paris often snapped the shutter before her sitters even realized, leaving little time for preparation, yet each photo appears flawless. In one horizontal shot, printed across the gatefold, a blond and brunette are seated on light and dark ends of a room, respectively. The book’s binding cleverly makes them appear as two separate images. In another, an older woman dressed in dynamic patterns poses before stacks of solid-color coats and dresses, standing out spectacularly with defined, drawn-on eyebrows.
One conspicuous absence in the book is any information identifying these women. This feels intentional, reflecting the twentieth-century socialist principle of collective labor. Today, socialists are very much engaged in putting names to faces, particularly as police murder marginalized citizens and corporate giants silence union campaigns. As such, this aesthetic decision complicates the history preserved here. How did these women feel about their work? Did they sympathize with the Soviet Union or desire assimilation with Western powers? A complexion of curiosity is shared among sitters, no doubt due to the project’s novelty.
Paris’s matter-of-fact diction reveals hesitations about Cold War politics. She recalls a 1986 exhibition canceled over her photograph of an unroofed building, which an official believed was “hidden criticism.” She expresses joy in the repopulation of young families after the fall of the Berlin Wall but acknowledges it came at a price: “After 1989, the social gap brought about many changes which, of course, can be read in people’s faces.” She still lives in Berlin but no longer takes pictures, telling Zybok that her oeuvre is complete: “I said what I have to say.”
Paris is one of few East German women recognized for her art, though the Wikipedia article on GDR artists excludes her in favor of her husband, Ronald. Still, more women photographers are recognized than painters or sculptors, which Paris attributes to photography’s “short tradition.” But to her, East German art was never about competition; it was about making sense of lingering inequalities. “We women in the GDR had nothing against men; on the contrary, we had equal rights,” she said. “We demanded equal rights when necessary, and we got them. Did that happen in the West? Probably not. That’s embarrassing.”
- Women of the GDR were not only eligible for nearly the same positions and work schedules as men—contrasting the male breadwinner model in the West—they also had one of the lowest gender pay gaps in modern history (eight percent), receiving free universal childcare and generous maternity leave. These policies allowed East German women to exert agency over their labor and transcend traditional gender roles. The conditions were so favorable at the time that East German migrants retained these values after reunification with the Federal Republic of Germany, and they continue to influence women’s rights into the twenty-first century.