Life of the journalist
Hans-Joachim (Ha-Jo) Helwig-Wilson


Born in Berlin

After the war

Apprenticeship with the East German state railways in East Berlin

1950 Moved to West Berlin.
Joined the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany). Began his career as a journalist in the editorial office (Eastern Zone) of the newspaper „Telegraf“
Until 1958 Worked for various agencies as a journalist
1958 - 1961 Free-lance work, mainly as a journalist and photographer specialising in East Berlin and the GDR. Given authorization to work for a British press agency by the press office of the prime minister of the GDR.
August 1961 Kidnapped after the building of the wall: arrested by the security service while working in East Berlin.
February 1962 Condemned to 13 years‘ imprisonment on the grounds of espionage and incitement to rebellion. Serious illness while in prison.
May 1965 His freedom was bought by the Federal Republic. Returned to West Berlin, with permanent damage to his health.
1967 - 1993 Member of the press agency of the Berlin Senate; also a free-lance journalist. Member of the executive of the SPD working group for former political prisoners of the GDR. He is now the group’s chairman.
1992 Rehabilitation
1999 Recognition of the damage to his health resulting from his imprisonment
2009 died in Berlin

Ten questions for ... Helwig-Wilson

Herr Helwig-Wilson, do you still take photographs these days? Yes, but only for private purposes, and I no longer develop them myself, as I always used to.

How did you come to be a photographer? It was rather by chance. An acquaintance of mine who was a photographer often used to take me with him when he was working, and told me that it was always possible to earn enough money with photographs, wherever you were. When it became apparent that I had a certain talent for it, the hobby became a career. The acquaintance was right, by the way; I was always able to sell enough pictures to feed myself and my family. At the end of the 1950s, you could earn 25 marks per photo. I had to sell on average four a day, and I was always able to do so.

Which cameras did you use for your work? A Rollei 6#6 and a Pentacon for small-format pictures.

I noticed that there are a lot of women and children in the photos. Is there a reason for this? Well, men are rather boring compared with women; and children are often used for „political campaigning“. Children bring photos to life; you can’t sell political slogans on their own. But the photos with children in, like all my photos, are never posed. That is very important for me.

Did you need permission to take photographs in the Eastern part of the city? I was an authorized journalist at the press office of the Prime Minister of the GDR. I was invited to official events and was also allowed to take photographs at them. I would always make myself known to the people in charge of the event, and ask whether there were any objections to my reporting it. On the streets, I just went ahead and took photos; I never had any negative reactions from people. Unlike many of my colleagues, I always went out on foot to search for material, and always took my time. Sometimes I would wait several hours for the right moment.

Did you come into contact with people through your work? Sometimes – for example, when I was filming by the border, I would ask the border guards for permission. They rarely refused. There was a kind of unspoken agreement: I was allowed to film and, when I left, I would drop a packet of cigarettes. The guards waited until I had gone, so that I couldn’t film them picking up the packet. Not that I would ever have done that anyway.

What were you looking for when choosing your subjects? I wanted to give people reading newspapers in the West an impression of what life was like in the East; the conditions under which people lived. Photos don‘t lie; that‘s one reason why I prefer them to the written word. I didn’t have any particular political message.

Even so, you were arrested in 1961 because of your work. Yes, but even the Stasi recognised that my photos, and the captions I added, always told the truth. My only crime was that I was working for West German and English newspapers. However, I did once send a photo to the intra-German ministry of the FRG which showed a border sign between East Berlin and East Germany. They found that so interesting that they sent it on to the Federal Chancellor’s office. That was one of the accusations made when I was in prison.

Which newspapers did you work for? I worked for a British agency and also had my photos distributed to all West German newspapers. Out of principle, I never offered exclusive rights to the highest bidder; I wanted the pictures to reach as many people as possible.

So there was a political element to your work? I was never a friend of ideologies, whether during the Nazi period, when I was a boy, or later, when the SED were in power. I have had too much experience of innocent people being persecuted.