In 2000, I accompanied Michael von Graffenried at the opening of his exhibition at the National Library of Algiers. For the Swiss photographer, the presentation of his reportage work looked like a redemption. Until then, he was not comfortable with photographs that he considered to have “stolen” for nearly ten years to the Algerian people. Between 1991 and 2000, Michael von Graffenried was one of the very few Western photographers to document the civil war that plunged the country into violence.
Any documentary photo, viewfinder to the eye and press armband on the arm, was outlawed. The Bernese had found a parade by mingling with the demonstrations and everyday life of Algerians holding his camera on his stomach, triggering by guesswork. In particular, his panoramic Widelux camera: the pivoting optics opened the horizon at 140 °. Michael von Graffenried quickly mastered this demanding apparatus, using with dexterity his visual and narrative possibilities. His black-and-white photographs put the space under tension. He has been published and exhibited around the world, valuable testimonials of a decade of lead. Ten years covered at the cost of multiple high-risk stays and images taken under the mantle, literally.
In 2000, Michael von Graffenried was relieved to be able to return his work to the Algerians. I remember contrasting reactions at the National Library, with visitors reproaching the photographer for plunging them into a hell they were just starting to leave. Others insisted on his status as a foreign photographer, free to come and go in Algeria, often supported by the power in place, while they themselves could not get a visa to leave the country.
But most of the visitors thanked the photographer for daring to reveal what parties of all sides, for a long time, wanted to hide. The report was there, unstoppable: in January 2000 at the National Library, Algeria dared to show the dirty war.
Twenty years later, Michael von Graffenried exhibited his vintage prints in the Parisian gallery of his wife, Esther Woerdehoff. It could have stopped there, this piece of history as well as bravery, and then to go on talking about the multiple recognitions acquired in forty years of documentary photography (Erich Salomon prize in Germany, badge of Knight of the order of the Art and Letters in France, among others). This is underestimating the big 62 years old guy, always moving, especially where we least expect.
Michael von Graffenried first wanted, in the gallery of the rue Falguière, to show for the first time his color slides taken at the time in Algeria. printed on paper, the images preserve the impact of their visual strength, enhanced by the Algerian light. Color brings them back to our present age, as if they were taken today, while black and white has the effect of extending the duration. This is the case: the polychrome gives temporality whereas the monochrome gives timelessness.
Which is good: Michael von Graffenried invited a young Algerian photographer to display his pictures next to his. Born in 1987, a member of Collective 220, Youcef Krache seized in black and white the events that, in February 2019, followed the candidacy of Bouteflika for the presidential election. An immense protest movement, peaceful, so far removed from the rallies of 1991-2000, but which, under the sharp eye of Youcef Krache, intertwines with the testimony of Michael von Graffenried.
Two moments of history reduced to a single impetus: that of a people who signify their hope for a better life.
Luc Debraine is the director of the Swiss Museum of Photography in Vevey, Switzerland.
Algeria – 91/19
Michael von Graffenried and Youcef Krache
From June 5 to July 27, 2019
Esther Woerdehoff Gallery
36 rue Falguière