Former ‘communist utopia’ now in jeopardy

Story highlights

Hoyerswerda, Germany, has lost many residents since the Berlin Wall fell

It was once held up as an example of a communist utopia in East Germany

But over the years, many left town looking for better job opportunities

CNN  — 

When he brought his camera to shoot the shrinking German city of Hoyerswerda, you could say American photographer Demetrius Freeman took a few risks.

“One: I don’t speak German. And two: There’s a heavy neo-Nazi population in the area,” Freeman told CNN over the phone last week. “I’m black, so traveling to that part of Germany was, well, very intimidating,” he said with a chuckle.

A generation ago when it was part of the former East Germany, Hoyerswerda was held up as an example of a communist utopia. But when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Germany reunited a year later, economic reform began choking the city of 72,000. First, jobs began disappearing – then so did the residents. Many left town looking for better opportunities.

In 1991, gangs attacked the homes of hundreds of immigrant workers there, including Vietnamese and Africans, The New York Times reported. Authorities were forced to evacuate the terrified laborers to a military base.

By the time Freeman arrived last year, its population had withered to just 35,000.

Demetrius Freeman

He wanted to document the residents’ painful economic struggle to survive.

Initially, he thought he’d tell the story through the eyes of one displaced family.

“But when I got there, I found the issue was much bigger,” Freeman said. “Everyone was going through it.”

So Freeman widened his editorial lens and painted a photographic landscape of a larger issue. It wasn’t simply residents’ survival at stake. The very existence of the town itself was clearly in jeopardy.

Several residents were moved out of their homes to make room for a coal mining operation. One of Freeman’s favorite photos shows an odd cardboard cutout in a window, showing happy residents smiling inside their doomed homes.

“It promoted this perfect couple and a perfect world, when it really wasn’t perfect,” Freeman said.

“The town felt eerie,” he said, “like I was in some sort of horror film.”

Almost always, Freeman and his German guide traveled around the city on bicycles. At one point they found themselves accosted by a group of men at a campsite.

“They stepped in front of us and did the whole, ‘Heil Hitler,’ putting their hands up and talking in German,” Freeman recalled.

His guide stepped in and began speaking with the men.

“There was an argument, and they told us to get out of their way,” Freeman said. “There was a lot of yelling. Finally they moved and continued yelling things as we biked away.”

“Thinking back, it’s like, how did I do that?” he laughed.

Freeman first fell in love with photography during his high-school days in Atlanta, after his best friend’s father loaned him a small point-and-shoot camera.

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    Once he started playing with it, he couldn’t put it down.

    Freeman’s fascination with creating images led to a question, which later became a goal: How can I make a living as a photographer?

    A college degree and internships at The New York Times led to his current position as a photographer for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

    “It’s really cool … I feel like the job presents different challenges that don’t exist in newspaper and other forms,” Freeman said. “You have to find a way to make photographing someone at a podium interesting.”

    One day, he hopes to have a freelance photo/video company, where he can focus on his true passion: portraits.

    “That’s really what I love to do – just capturing someone’s character in one frame,” Freeman said. “I find it very character-revealing. It’s very subtle.

    And l love that.”

    Demetrius Freeman is an American photographer based in New York City. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram.