Magnum photographers challenged to photograph Swiss democracy



A team of four photographers from the prestigious Magnum agency arrived in Bern last month for one of their toughest assignments. Accustomed to surveying the hottest crisis zones on the planet, they are now preparing to document the placid workings of Swiss democracy.

This content was published on July 3, 2022 – 10:00 July 3, 2022 – 10:00

Born in São Paulo, Brazil, editor in the Portuguese department and head of Culture beat. A graduate in cinema and commerce and economics, he worked at Folha de S. Paulo, one of the main Brazilian daily newspapers, before settling in Switzerland in 2000 as an international correspondent for various Brazilian media. Based in Zurich, Simantob has worked with print and digital media, international documentary film co-productions, visual arts (3.a Bienal da Bahia; Johann Jacobs Museum/Zurique) and was a guest speaker on Transmedia Storytelling at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts (HSLU – Camera Arts, 2013-17).

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Thomas Kern was born in Switzerland in 1965. Trained as a photographer in Zürich, he started working as a photojournalist in 1989. He founded the Swiss photographers’ agency Lookat Photos in 1990. Thomas Kern has twice won a World Press Award and has received several Swiss national scholarships. His work has been widely exhibited and he is represented in various collections.

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Next year, Switzerland will celebrate the 175th anniversary of its first federal constitution (1848) and the founding of a parliamentary system based on values ​​still debated to this day such as direct democracy and neutrality. On this occasion, Melody Gygax, cultural agent of Magnum Photos in Switzerland, has teamed up with the Swiss documentary filmmaker and publisher of photo books Reto Caduff to develop a project consisting of an exhibition, a photo book, a documentary film and a LiveLabexternal link – a residency program for a small Magnum team.

Live in the Bern LiveLab: from left to right, Pablo Riccomi, assistant to Alex Majoli, Guy Jost, head of photography at the Bern Design School (Schule für Gestaltung Bern, where the LiveLab took place), Alex Webb and his wife and fellow photographer Rebecca Norris Webb. Thomas Kern/

They named the project “Sessions”, in reference to the focus of their mission: the summer sessions, held from May 30 to June 18, of the Swiss Parliament in Bern – arguably not the most exciting city in the world.

With the agreement of the agency office in Paris, the ‘Sessions’ started in June. The four Magnum photographers have distinct practices and approaches and come from different generations. SWI met them during their residency [see photo gallery at the end of this page] .

The little rich

Iranian Newsha TavakolianExternal link is the youngest of the group, and probably the earliest. She started her career at 16 in the Iranian women’s magazine Zan; at 18, she was the youngest photojournalist to document the 1999 student rebellion in Tehran.

Since then, she has been active all over the world, notably in Iraqi Kurdistan, Colombia and Syria. His images developed into a unique artistic language; they have appeared not only in international media, including the New York Times, Le Monde, Stern, National Geographic, but have also been acquired by the Victoria & Albert Museum (London), the British Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, among others.

Newsha Tavakolian at the Swiss Parliament Reto Caduff

Asked about her first impressions of the Swiss capital – SWI met her on the third day of the mission in Bern – Tavakolian said she still understood the peculiar behavior of the local population. In many ways, Switzerland is worlds away from its native Iran, or any country where trains do not run on time. “I notice though that in this very wealthy and stable society, people tend to get stressed out about very small things.” she says.

Democracy is on the street

At the opposite end of the age bracket, American Alex WebbExternal link , 70, is an “old-school” photojournalist, with several books published on his wanderings around the world. Based in New York, Webb says he is now more sensitive to social and political upheaval in the United States. Thus, this mission on the Swiss parliamentary system joins its concerns for the state of democracy in general, reminding us that we cannot take political freedom for granted even in the richest countries.

As for what he expects to find in Bern, Webb says he doesn’t intend to limit his lens to the parliament building: “I want to photograph people in the street, because it’s in the street that democracy really lives on.

The Swiss constitution and the written record of Swiss democracy are at the center of the attention of the Spaniard Cristina de MiddelExternal link , the third photographer. After many years in Mexico, she moved a few years ago to Salvador (Brazil), but Switzerland is not too foreign to her. “My father grew up near Lausanne and we spent most of our vacations here. He really loved this country,” she tells us. This is the first time she has come to Bern.

Cristina de Middel at work in the LiveLab. Thomas Kern/

Her work, resulting from more than ten years of practice of photojournalism, led her towards projects closer to conceptual art. She is not afraid of staged images when they play a part in storytelling and viewer perception, as in her project “The Afronauts” (2012) which re-enacted the Zambian space program of the 1960s.

When we met her, De Middel was spending most of her time in the Swiss capital at the National Archives in Bern. She was amazed at how quickly she gained access to the original documents of Swiss democracy. “In just a few hours, I was there with the original Swiss constitution in front of me,” she recalls.

Jamming in pictures

Italian Alex MajoliExternal link , 51, is no stranger to perilous missions. In the early 1990s, he cut his teeth as a photojournalist in Yugoslavia, then covered the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the American invasion of Iraq. In the interwar period, Majoli also invested in profound photographic incursions on a home for the mentally ill in Greece (1994), a personal project in South America (Requiem in Samba, 1995), or life in port cities around the world (Hotel Marinum, 1998).

Alex Majoli (left) posing prints with his assistant. Thomas Kern/

Living between New York and Sicily, Majoli had already participated in another Magnum LiveLab, in Russia. The principle of LiveLabs is based on the collaborative work of four different artists, perspectives and visual languages. More interestingly, the LiveLab is a transparent process where interested viewers can be present during the production of the works and interact directly with the photographers.

Majoli shows great enthusiasm for the concept. “I used to play guitar in a band, and for me it’s like a photography jam session,” he says.

  • Organization of the material collected at the National Archives: first proofs of Cristina de Middel. Thomas Kern/

  • Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian at LiveLab in Bern. Reto Caduff

  • Melody Gygax, curator of the ‘Sessions’ project. Thomas Kern/

  • Map of members of the Swiss Parliament. Thomas Kern/

  • Melody Gygax explains who’s who in Alex Webb’s photos of the Swiss Parliament. Thomas Kern/

  • American Alex Webb studies the pictures taken during his first days in Bern. Thomas Kern/

  • Cristina de Middel (seated) discusses her impressions with curator Melody Gygax (left). Thomas Kern/

  • Melody Gygax (centre) and Alex Majoli in the background, during the Magnum LiveLab in Bern. Thomas Kern/

Edited by Virginie Mangin



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