Michael von Graffenried is a widely published and highly regarded Swiss photojournalist. Graffenried works in series of long-term documentary projects and his photography is distinctive for its use of the Widelux: a panoramic camera with a swing lens that gives a an ultrawide, 140 degree view of the world.
It’s a tricky format to master and there are very few photographers who’ve made it their own and managed to create a distinctive style that makes use of the camera’s peculiarities.
Graffenried has mastered the format, producing a body of work that stretches from the Algerian Civil War to Swiss cocaine addicts, and from the East End of London and to contemporary American race relations, all shot on the super wide format of a Widelux or Hasselblad Xpan.
“Today everybody knows when there’s a photographer around so they start to act. With the Widelux, nobody knows what you’re doing.”
Photographing The Algerian Civil War
Michael von Graffenried came to the Widelux by accident: at first it was a pragmatic choice rather than an aesthetic decision, brought on by trying to shoot documentary and journalism during the Algerian Civil War of the 1990’s.
In 1991 Graffenried was in Algeria teaching a series of workshops when a military coup took place, over-turning an election result that overwhelming favoured Islamist parties. He found himself at the heart of a story of that would assume worldwide importance. “This was the beginning of Islamic terrorism and nobody wanted to realise that. But I felt like Algeria was like a laboratory and that someday this would concern the whole world. And then in 2001 there was 911 and the Americans went to Algeria to ask the regime how you can fight Islamic terror.”
The problem he found was that whenever he tried to take pictures, people refused to be photographed. “Algeria is an African Muslim country and nobody took photographs and nobody wants to be photographed, except at weddings or other events.”
Shooting on the Widelux
Graffenried’s solution was to take photographs surreptitiously. “I decided to begin to cheat, to just take the photograph, to steal it. And the best way that I found to cheat was the Widelux because you don’t need to put it to your eye, you can just keep it on your chest and walk in the streets like someone who has a camera but they’re not using it because you don’t raise it to your eye. The Widelux looks like a flea market camera, it’s harmless.”
Graffenried carried on shooting in this way, never feeling entirely comfortable with this new covert method of photographing but realising that it was a world event that he should be covering. “I did this for the next 9 years, against the will of everybody even though it made me feel so bad that I had to wash myself in the evenings. But I knew if I didn’t do it nobody will document this civil war, I practically had a world monopoly because nobody else had capacity to get into Algeria. And at that time the Islamic terrorists deliberately killed over 300 intellectuals, journalists and photographers.”
Graffenried created an epic documentation of the war but initially found that picture editors where reluctant to use the panoramic format. “They all told me we don’t give a shit about your panoramic format, it doesn’t fit with our double page layout or graphic design. But I said, it’s this or nothing and they had to accept it.”
Real documentary photography
For Graffenried it’s not just that the wide format mimics the human eye, for him it shows the whole of human life, using a camera so unfamiliar and a perspective so wide that people aren’t sure what’s in his frame. Another way to steal the picture. “This is real documentary. Today everybody knows when there’s a photographer around and they know it’s important, so they start to act. I like to take things the way they are, and with the Widelux, the way the lens swings around nobody knows what you’re doing, it’s perfect.”
This way of thinking and working really came into its own in Graffenried’s Shoreditch Stories: an intimate look at life in one of the poorest parts of London. He was working in the area as an artist in residence and was looking for a way into people’s homes when he met a local doctor who was interested in creating a portraits of her patients. Using the Widelux in the confined spaces of people’s homes allowed him to show the intimate chaos of the way people live. “I was aiming for normal everyday life and how people live normally. There are so many pictures that are made all over the world that aren’t natural. It’s all PR and everybody is playing a game, or using photoshop. There are very few photographers who do the normal boring situations of our lives.”
People don’t always like what the wide format shows them about their own lives and after all these years Graffenried still feels that in some way he’s cheating, so he makes a point of ensuring that he shows them the work first. “Because I’m doing something that I shouldn’t, I’m taking something from them they have the right to see it first. But often they don’t want to see it and they don’t like that it’s realistic. Reality can be hard to take.”
Sometimes this approach can result in some uncomfortable truths for the subjects, such as when Graffenried was commissioned to photograph New Bern in North Carolina. Named after his home town of Bern in Switzerland, and founded by his ancestor, the town is ‘conspicuously composed of 55% white and 33% black citizens.’
Graffenried spent 15 years shooting ‘patient images of everyday life showing understanding and no judgement of his subjects’ this included ‘a black church congregation; young white girls at rifle practice; black men exchanging cash on the street; a white couple displaying their collection of fire arms.’
But when it came to exhibiting the photographs, Graffenried found that there was a curious apathy or even fear of the pictures. “When the book was published by Steidle, we contacted 6 editors of the local papers in New Bern NC, offering them review copies. But nobody took up the offer, it was the first book about their town and they would have preferred a book that would promote tourism .”
Photobooks by Michael von Graffenried
If you’re interested in seeing more of Graffenried s work, he has published several photobooks including: Sudan, a forgotten war (Benteli 1995), Naked in Paradise (Dewi Lewis 1996), Inside Algeria (Aperture 1998), Cocainelove (Benteli 2005), Eye on Africa (Schwabe 2009), Bierfest (Steidl 2014 =) and Our Town (Steidl 2021)