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Helvetica Switzerland - through the lens of a German photographer

A new book, capturing Switzerland through the lens of German photographer Andreas Herzau, gives an insight into how the country’s northern neighbour views the Alpine nation.

It’s been a few years since I met up with my fellow photographer Andreas Herzau for a beer in Bern’s old town.

He was telling me about his new project; the idea was still very fresh and, at the time, there were yet only a few pictures he could show me. But the intention was clear: to create a portrait of Switzerland from an extremely personal perspective.

German immigration to Switzerland has been a hotly debated subject in the Swiss media since 2011. The relationship between the German-speaking part of Switzerland and its big neighbour north of the Rhine has affected people in a myriad of ways.

Walking a tightrope of clichés

The photographer, who lives in Hamburg, also had a particularly personal reason for choosing this subject. His partner was one of those newly arrived Germans in Switzerland – trying to familiarise themselves with their new surroundings and perhaps even seeking to make a home here. She had recently started a new job in Bern.

The fruits of Herzau’s labour is a book of large format prints entitled ‘Helvetica’, and is a wide examination of Switzerland. The photographer captured a vast variety of places, events, and people during his frequent travels to the Alpine nation in recent years.

The effect is a collection of pictures that go beyond the traditional demands of reportage – it oscillates between clichéd ideas on the one hand and lived experiences on the other.

Navigating the stereotypes

In Helvetica, Herzau celebrates Switzerland’s achievements, but also looks at the difficulties it has in meeting its own high demands.

The photographer explores the contradictions of the Swiss image of itself and also reflects on his own role as a foreigner within it: it’s these fault lines that Herzau examines closely.

The careful curation of images as well as the cleverly considered juxtaposition of themes create a poignant and nuanced portrait of contemporary Switzerland.

The photographs are accompanied by poems by Bolivian-born Swiss poet Eugen Gomringer. A former professor at the Dusseldorf Art Academy, Gomringer was, among other things, influential in establishing the idea of concrete poetry. His daughter Nora Gomringer, whose texts also appear in the book, is also a poet and has been a pioneer of the German poetry slam scene. She was awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2015.