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Adventures of an aerial photographer

An archeological site in Erdburg, Fehraltorf (©Foto und alle Rechte Kantonsarchäologie Zurich)

What do you do when your aircraft is drifting away on a piranha-infested river, leaving you stranded on a sandbank? The answer: reel it back with a fishing rod.

This is what happened to Georg Gerster when he took a break from photographing the Amazon from the air, and he only made it back home thanks to the quick thinking of his pilot.

An unscheduled stop to answer a call of nature in the depths of Brazil nearly led to disaster during a 1979 expedition when the Swiss photographer’s Cessna plane, fitted with floats, broke free of its moorings.

But the pilot, who was trying to catch supper, simply snagged a wing and brought it back to land.

After more than 40 years flying around the globe, snapping natural and man-made wonders in more than 100 countries, Gerster has more than his fair share of stories to tell.

He has flown in a variety of ramshackle aircraft, was nearly shot down by the Chilean air force and once watched in horror as his pilot landed on a busy highway in Iran to impress his girlfriend. But he insists that his closest calls have come on the ground.

"The nearest I came to death was photographing a hippo hunt on the Niger when one of them surfaced next to my canoe," he told swissinfo at his Zurich home. "Knowing how ferocious these beasts are, the locals jumped out at once. But in my ignorance I stayed to protect my cameras.

"Fortunately the hippo decided to smash the next canoe in half with one bite. That night my guides sang and danced in praise of my courage, which made me feel rather foolish."

Zurich exhibition

Gerster is now displaying a collection of 300 aerial photographs of archaeological sites at Zurich's Landesmuseum. The exhibition, entitled The Past From Above, runs until November 13.

It catalogues the rich history of townships, fortresses, burial sites, palaces, geoglyphs and monuments – many of them in Switzerland. He says that taking pictures from a great height allows a new perspective and a greater understanding.

The photographer has certainly gained an understanding of mankind after spending much of his life documenting the impact people have on the landscape.

"The one thing that I have learned about people is that they are all the same," he said. "There are cultural and ethnic differences, but it finally comes down to the same basic needs: hunger, love or losing a child.

"Mark Twain once said 'history doesn't repeat itself, it rhymes', and this is what this exhibition is about. When people want to defend themselves or bury their dead they find the same solutions throughout the ages all over the world."

Gerster took to the skies over Switzerland to produce additional photographs for the Zurich leg of the exhibition, which has already run in Germany and Denmark and next moves to China.

"It was a nice way to learn about Switzerland in more detail," he said. "I have flown far more in Iran, Syria and the US than I have over my own country, and I was amazed by the things that I saw.

"For example, I didn't know before about the corrugated raised fields in canton Thurgau which are very similar to pre-Aztec agricultural techniques in Central America."

Deep affinity

Gerster has a deep affinity with Switzerland, having spent two decades shooting poster campaigns for the now-defunct Swissair. But he has developed a more international outlook after spending so much time abroad.

"I feel very cosmopolitan," he said. "I have a fleeting experience of Switzerland being my homeland as I have my house here and I know where everything is and how everything works.

"But within days of sleeping on the ground in a hut in Africa built for me by fishermen, I get those same feelings of being at home."

The 77-year-old has no intention of retiring or even of slowing up, with projects on Greece, Romania, Iran and Spain on the go.

"As long as God allows it I will carry on. I cannot go on holiday and just look at things like other people. I always take my cameras with me and look for interesting images to capture. Maybe I should see a psychiatrist to drum these feelings out of me," he joked.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Zurich

Key facts

Georg Gerster has flown over more than 100 countries during 40 years as an aerial photographer.
The Landesmuseum exhibition has 300 photographs showing archaeological sites from 52 different countries, including Switzerland.
Georg Gerster was born in Winterthur on April 30, 1928, and received a doctorate from Zurich University after reading German and English.

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