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Photographer caught between two worlds

Michael von Graffenried with one of his Algerian photographs. Kunstmuseum Bern

If a picture speaks louder than words, Michael von Graffenried's photographs of two very different countries would fill volumes.

This content was published on March 5, 2003 - 09:49

Stark, touching and sometimes disturbing, his panoramic black and white images are on view in Bern's Museum of Fine Arts.

Entitled "Between Two Worlds", the exhibition explores the contrasts between Algeria and von Graffenried's native country, Switzerland.

Since 1991, the Bernese photographer has visited Algeria 30 times, and readily admits that he is in love with a country where the government has been at war with Islamic extremists for nearly a decade.

"When I first went there, I discovered hospitality which doesn't exist any more in many other places," he told swissinfo.

Undercover

Von Graffenried is fully aware of the risks he takes during his visits.

Foreigners and journalists are regularly targeted by fundamentalists, with dozens of reporters, photographers and cameramen having been killed there in the past few years.

This has meant working undercover to capture images of everyday life in a society where the press is under tight government control.

Von Graffenried says his tanned complexion and dark hair help him blend in with the Algerian public, and his subjects are nearly always unaware that they're being photographed.

He also swaps his Hasselblad camera for a second-hand Widelux which makes no shutter noise.

"The camera is concealed under my coat," he says. "Although it has a fixed focus I've been very pleased with the results."

Stolen pictures

Von Graffenried normally asks people for permission before taking his pictures, but it's usually impossible to do so in Algeria.

"I feel very guilty about that, but I was able to give back the stolen pictures I'd taken of Algerians during an exhibition of my work in Algiers two years ago."

Von Graffenried says he has great respect for Algerian press photographers who carry on working, despite government media controls and the constant threat of violence.

"If I'm in danger, I can leave. They can't."

The photographer, who is based in Paris, says many French journalists believe he shouldn't work in Algeria, reasoning that to be protected by the government is tantamount to being controlled by it.

"It is difficult, but you can't boycott Algeria and I will go again."

Unsentimental

The power of von Graffenried's Algerian photographs is all the more potent when they sit alongside his pictures of Switzerland.

Intimate and yet totally devoid of any sentimentality, these are a personal and affectionate pictorial account of Switzerland that is far removed from its quaint image of cheese and chocolates.

In one picture, young schoolboys carry rifles on their way to target practice. Another shows a line of Dominican nuns at prayer.

But perhaps the most touching of all is a close-up panoramic shot of Bernese firefighters observing a minute's silence for their New York counterparts who perished on September 11.

"Between Two Worlds" is at the Bern's fine arts museum until June 22.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson

In brief

Michael von Graffenried was born in Bern in 1957. Self-taught, he began working as a photographer in 1978.

He has been published in many major international magazines and newspapers and has exhibited widely.

His photographs are held in several permanent museum collections and his books include Sudan: The forgotten war (1995), Naked in Paradise (1997) and Inside Algeria (1998).

Since 1991 he has made 30 visits to Algeria, and in 2000 his photographs were exhibited in Algiers.

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