|reportage Covert operations|
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.
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 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.
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 doesnt understand what is happening or what he is photographing.
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.
|Spring 1997 | Michael von Graffenried and related links | Archive | Back | Next | 2 of 8|