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Michael von Graffenried is dancing around a sunny, cobbled Paris courtyard. He looks rather like a bird watcher twitching at the sight of a rare species. He wears jeans and an old beige windcheater, and his hands are clasped across the top of what seems to be a primitive pair of binoculars, hanging on an old leather strap. As he turns and trots back there is a faint whirring noise. On his second run, he stalks quickly past, his arm outstretched, the black apparatus in one hand.
This is a photographer demonstrating how he works. The photographs he takes are stolen ones, taken without consent, using a Widelux panoramic camera with no obvious lens or shutter noise. The reason for this is that Graffenried takes many of his photographs in Algeria, where the civil war waged between the government and Islamic extremists has been a daily horror for the last six years. An estimated 60,000 people have died in the conflict. Foreigners and journalists, in particular, have become prime targets for the fundamentalists; since May 1993, 63 photographers and reporters have been murdered.

For Graffenried, working against the wishes of the people he photographs is the only way of reporting events in a country at war. Algeria has been plunged into silence for years and, as there have been virtually no images for television or the press, interest outside the country is minimal.
With his dark curly hair, tanned face and anonymous clothes, Graffenried passes easily for an Algerian, but he has to work in silence for his Swiss-accented French would immediately give him away as a foreigner. But because Algerians themselves no longer speak to people they don’t know in the street or on buses, his silence goes unnoticed.
“There is a total lack of trust,” observes Graffenried, “… you never know whose side anyone is on, not even your own brother.” Loping through the streets, his almost invisible camera held against his chest, he takes photographs of everyday urban life, of prayers at the mosque, of funerals in the cemeteries after the latest killings of civilians or presumed terrorists, and of the ‘ninjas’ – the feared paramilitary police.

With their balaclavas and Kalashnikovs, the ninjas are a menacing sight; their masks both conceal their identity and proclaim their ruthlessness. Photographing them at work is only possible on rare government trips, when foreign journalists are invited to the country and taken around in a convoy of armoured cars to be shown how the regime is eradicating the terrorists.
Even on such a trip, Graffenried sticks to his same method of working with black and white lm in his panoramic camera which sweeps across 150° views. He uses exactly the same technique, for there is always the possibility of stealing a picture, of taking something that was not really on public display. The ‘half-stolen’ photograph of the policeman waving a gun was taken as the police car became trapped in a street of Algiers and the panic-stricken ninja tried to force a way out, to the general indifference of passers-by.

As Graffenried explains, working without a viewfinder is a matter of experience which involves acquiring a sense of exactly what will fit in the frame. People in the street are often unaware that a camera is just half a metre from them – not that they would say anything if they did notice: for who knows who the mysterious photographer might be, why he is photographing them, and what his photographs might be used for?

Graffenried is a militant advocate of working with the people he photographs. For him a camera is an alibi for talking to people, and in normal situations, he always asks permission to take the pictures. But there is a profound anti-photography culture in Algeria: people refuse to be photographed, partly for religious reasons, partly because for years now there have been no tourists with cameras, but also, more significantly, because during colonial times the French army frequently used the camera to identify and control people, forcing women to remove their veils and be photographed. In Algeria, photographs are for passports and official papers, or else to commemorate important festivals and family celebrations; otherwise, the camera is neither customary nor welcome.

The only option is stealing pictures, though Graffenried admits that he hates working this way. “Nobody wants you to do it and it makes you feel dirty,” he confesses. He has been on eight trips to photograph in Algeria, only one of which was an official invitation. He is always accompanied by a friend when he is photographing in the streets, but because he cannot speak to ask questions, he often doesn’t understand what is happening or what he is photographing.
“I react first and then ask the questions,” he says. He has to work very fast and is forced to rely on luck as to whether his pictures will work out or not. There are both pleasant and nasty surprises, and no second chances.

Every time he tried to steal photographs of the army on his unofficial trips, he was caught out by small boys who reported him to the police who would lock him up for the day and release him without warning at night. For Graffenried, the worst of this was losing a whole working day, especially if it was a Friday, the day of prayer.
The technique and panoramic format have been a practical rather than an aesthetic choice: in a closed society where photography is both a taboo and a potential weapon, the silent camera and swift footwork are Graffenried’s only possible safe working method. The results form a dramatic and original view of daily life in a society wracked by civil war.

Spring 1997 | Michael von Graffenried and related links | Archive | Back | Next | 2 of 8