It is 9.30pm and I am standing on a dodgy looking street somewhere in East Berlin, queuing for a photo booth. There’s a guy already inside it – he’s been there for at least 10 minutes, and even though there is a curtain obscuring his actions, I can see there has been, in that time, a substantial amount of posing.
The camera inside the machine has ‘poof!’ed and ‘flash!’ ed more times than I’m sure is strictly necessary. Eventually, a slender and nervous looking man in his 20s sticks his head out from behind the curtain and says in very polite, perfect English (with a German accent), ‘I’m sorry, I’ll be a few minutes more’. He is wearing what appears to be a crown of thorns and holding a clown mask.
I nod, speechless. He disappears again. A queue of hipsters is beginning to form behind me. Unless they like kebab houses they have very little reason to be standing on this corner at this time of night on a Sunday.
You’re probably wondering why on earth we don’t just wander off and find another photo booth. They are located at every U-Bahn station, after all. But that would defeat the point. I have, as I’m sure have they, come looking for this photo booth in particular. Because this is a Photoautomat, and none of us are leaving until we’ve had our pictures taken in it.
Relics of the past
The Photoautomat idea was thought up in 2004 by someone in Berlin who decided it would be great to recreate the old analogue photo booths of the past. These multi-coloured booths appeared in cities all over the eastern side of Germany, including Berlin. I saw a photo of one on Instagram and was immediately struck by how much of a relic of the old, Berlin Wall era East Germany it looked.
Angular and clinical, with the word ‘PHOTOAUTOMAT’ across the top in terrifyingly abrupt capital letters, it never occurred to me it was a working photo booth. A little bit of Internet research led me to the Photoautomat web site, where I found a map of Photoautomat locations in Berlin, and because I love a good treasure hunt I decided to go and find as many of them as possible.
Also I knew nothing about Berlin and this seemed like a good way to learn. It is my experience of city treasure hunts that the thing you are searching for turns out not to be the main draw of the area in which you locate it. It is often a mildly entertaining side show to a neighbourhood that contains hidden parks, interesting museums that guide books don’t mention or brightly coloured shop fronts.
Everything I read about Berlin seemed to point out that in 2015, the city is one massive up-and-coming event with neighbourhoods full of trendy bars and clubs, shops and galleries found in basements of what once were East German cellars or abandoned warehouses, that mainly sell things you will never need but might like to put on a shelf and gaze at. Either that or Mecca for people wanting to buy miniscule bits of the Berlin wall superimposed onto a postcard. I was confused by this, as there seemed no selling point for me: the non-tourist and the non-hipster. I thought I would use the Photoautomats to discover the finer points of the city for myself.
The trouble with maps
The first hurdle to get over was that once printed out, the map provided by the Photoautomat web site is annoying vague if you don’t know Berlin. It consists of grey lines with only the most main of streets labelled, and red dots plonked in the general vicinity of where a photo booth can be found. I set about cross-referencing this ‘map’ with a map of the city and then again with a map of the S and U-Bahn train lines to work out the nearest streets and the nearest stations.
But walking about with your head in a map, muttering ‘we should be standing right on top of it now…’ can only take you so far. At some point you have to lift your head up and look around. We discovered very quickly that following a line of hipsters can usually yield results. Berlin is full of hipsters, a new generation of twenty-somethings who don’t remember the Berlin Wall and appear to thrive on looking penniless in expensive clothing. Black and white analogue photo booths capture that sort of ‘I’ve not tried to look this cool, no really, I haven’t’ look and better yet, preserve it for your grand children.
You only need 2 Euros to go in one and create a record of how cool and penniless you appear. And in a city where things from the past – East German apartment blocks and Trabants, an East German-manufactured car, are making a comeback, why wouldn’t the cool kids want to get in on the analogue photo booth craze? Hell, most of them have never seen an analogue photo booth. I haven’t even ever seen one. Finding my first one was exciting for exactly this reason, if a little confusing.
We came upon our first Photoautomat on our first full day in the city. It happened to be right opposite Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous Berlin Wall crossing point and right next to Trabiworld, an establishment boasting a surprising array of Trabants that had been painted rainbow colours. Already, I was starting to enjoy the unexpected benefits reaped by embarking on a city treasure hunt.
Trabiworld also served as another reminder that OLD things are now COOL. The photo booth itself was bright yellow and stood amid tourists taking photos of the checkpoint at which, only 30 years ago, people were still getting shot at for trying to do the equivalent of crossing the road, and almost directly underneath a large blue hot air balloon with the words ‘DIE WELT’ emblazoned across it in white. The words, at first sinister in appearance, turned out to be the name of a German national daily newspaper.
There were 2 confused looking hipsters wearing designer clothes, shredded to high heaven in a vague attempt to appear ill-considered. It turned out they had been waiting for their photos to pop out into the tray on the side of the machine for some time now. I was with my mum, who rolled her eyes and made ‘in my day, it always used to take this long for the photos to come out’ sounds. We all ignored her, because we do not remember those days, being part of the age of iPhones and having everything NOW.
When we got into the booth, it became evident very quickly that we had no idea what we were doing, because I’d never done it before and Mum didn’t remember. Thinking I would have time to arrange us into a proper pose, as per the set up of modern photo booths used for passport photos and the like, I inserted a 2 Euro coin into the slot and immediately the machine began to flash and poof and there was much flapping as we both tried to get our faces in the right place.
When the photos popped out into the tray (what felt like) 40 minutes later , the first one was of my chest. The second was of the side of my head and my arm. The remaining two at least had part of our faces in them but were no great works of art. More practice was needed.
The great hipster hunt
Over the next 3 days we toured the city, getting on and off trains, looking confused a lot, before spotting a bright blue or red photo booth with the tell tale words PHOTOAUTOMAT displayed overhead, and a line of excited, trendy looking people in big hats and designer overcoats waiting to get in it. We practised our poses. At no point did we employ props (in fact, props didn’t even occur to me until we encountered Crown of Thorns Man on our last evening). Even on side streets we were sure to encounter a couple of stray hipsters already in the booth when we arrived. We never found a deserted one.
And true to the nature of treasure hunting in cities, we came across sights we never would have seen in neighbourhoods we never would have thought to visit had the photo booth expedition not taken us there. We found brightly coloured graffiti walls, leafy streets full of apartment blocks, a cocktail bar boasting happy hour, a huge park that had a food market in it on Sundays and a whole street full of potted plants, fairy lights and music.
Back at Checkpoint Charlie, after discovering the photo booth, I discovered my first Currywurst, which is a sausage-ketchup-curry powder dish so popular in Berlin that I couldn’t find a single restaurant menu devoid of it. It was alright. We also discovered the Currywurst museum and gift shop, where you can buy a knitted currywurst, a tote back proclaiming ‘peace, love & currywurst’ or a post card with the recipe for currywurst on it, just in case you want to recreate this culinary wonder at home.
There were also locations we visited where we never found the Photoautomat. We asked the locals, we scratched our heads and eventually we gave up. But we discovered things in the areas the map had brought us to. Hidden parks and weird statues. A courtyard next to a theatre that had dozens of red and orange glass orbs hanging from the trees above our heads. A restaurant that served us up the best roast duck we’d ever tasted. Our treasure map of photo booths also provided us with a treasure map for a city we didn’t know at all, and know a little better now, having discovered these hidden corners of it.
When I got back to England a few days later and begin putting this article together, I visited the Photoautomat web site again and discovered, belatedly, that there is a list of exact addresses for each of the Photoautomats in Berlin. This is infuriating. But to be fair, and in my defence, the web site is in German. And anyway, if we hadn’t gone on an intensive exploration of every location on our vague, red dot speckled map, we wouldn’t have found half the stuff we’d found. Every cloud has a silver lining. Or at least, a line of hipsters waiting to have their photo taken.