Spatial Awareness

Between the 1970s and early 1990s, British photographer Joe Dilworth regularly peeked behind the iron curtain. His pictures are visual memories from a parallel society – and documents of a deep fascination.

“As a kid, I used to get in trouble for staring at people,” says British photographer Joe Dilworth. In photography, he found a way to channel his curiosity – but without staying completely out of trouble.

In his youth, he had visited Czechoslovakia as part of a scouting exchange with the Pioneer movement – a experience so memorable that he wanted to repeat it. “You weren’t supposed to go… which exerted a huge pull on me,” he says.

After studying Fine Art at Saint Martins and Goldsmiths in London, Joe regularly returned to Eastern Europe, an area that was then still firmly behind the iron curtain.

Berlin, 1989

Budapest, 1986

Budapest, 1989

Joe’s photos from the time document everyday life in the region over several years. He made multiple trips to cities like Budapest, Prague, and East Berlin, where he shot photos on the streets. But his photos are less accurately described by their individual subjects than they are by their overall theme. Taken together, these photos all revolve around space: The open space these cities contain, how people fill it, and how public life takes a hold within it.

“Going there was a way of slipping back into the past,” Joe explains. “When I was growing up, post-war London was an underpopulated city, with lots of ruins and emptiness.” But taking pictures there was more than just an act of remembrance – it was also an investigation of the differences. “The world there was a mirror image to capitalism, everything worked in a completely different way.”

When the Cold War had ended, Joe returned to these places and took more pictures. Thanks to his remarkably consistent style, the more recent photos fit neatly with the older ones. In fact, it often becomes difficult to tell which decade the photos were taken in.

Berlin, 1996

Budapest, 2004

Moscow, 2000

Many photos resulted from the way Joe himself interacted with space: The Rolleiflex camera he continues to use takes pictures from a waist level: It’s a unique angle that gives even his contemporary pictures a certain vintage atmosphere. And shooting from below allows the photographer to get close to his subject: “It’s a submissive gesture,” Joe explains, “and it automatically makes you part of the environment without imposing on others.”

It’s the difference between looking and staring, if you will.

Berlin, 2009

Buadors, 2007

Joe Dilworth is a photographer from London. He studied Fine Art at Saint Martin’s College and Goldsmiths in London. He also spent several years playing as a drummer in several bands, including Stereolab. He now lives in the German capital, where he is one of the co-founders of the photography book store Bildband Berlin. See more of his work on his website and make sure to follow him on Instagram.

Many thanks to Maya Hristova for help on this piece.