Switzerland is home to over 8 million people. Of those, approximately 25% are migrants hailing from 195 different countries. At 41,285 km2 the European nation is rather small but offers a rich history dating back to the 13th century and a diverse atmosphere.
Recently a project called Switzers has sought to promote acceptance and tolerance for the international community by redefining what it means to be Swiss. Reiner Roudner, the filmmaker behind the idea has created the “Nation Walk”, Switzerland’s largest outdoor photography installation, spanning between Zurich’s main train station and the nearby Europallee shopping centre. Here you will find 195 portraits taken of people who now reside in the alpine nation. On the back of the prints there are short quotes, people sharing details of their background and their experiences in Switzerland.
The idea began with a single photo. Roduner was inspired while shooting an Ethiopian man and decided that he wanted to take pictures of people from as many different places as possible. He spent two years searching for a resident to be the face of each of the nations. A dedicated team and numerous sponsors supported Reiner’s efforts.
Some of the photos are up to 9 meters long, making for a display that you really can’t miss. Nearly half a million people see it each day. Regardless of if the people happen to be passing by on their daily commute, are enjoying a holiday in the city or have simply come to see the photos, the images send an important message to everyone: Diversity is a positive thing and our city wouldn’t be the same without it.
Beginning in January the project will take to the road and be set up in parks and promenades throughout the country. The quotes will be translated into French and English to make them more accessible to everyone. They’ll create a path 250 meters long.
But it doesn’t end there. Switzers has been turned into a 400-page picture book. It’s the little details that make this project special. On each page you will find the portrait of a person on one side and a short, handwritten note from them on the other. Their passages are written in their mother tongue and then translated into German and French. They’ll tell of their trials and tribulations, happiness and observations they’ve made while living in Switzerland.
Lastly, Roduner, staying true to the art of film has planned an installation with recordings of each person. The footage is based on a rather simplistic idea. The people are to be shown in the most natural of ways, laughing, smiling or simply staring. Every 30 seconds viewers will get to interact with a new person.
Perhaps this project couldn’t have come at a better time. While across Europe we have seen a variety of reactions to the recent influx of asylum seekers, here in Zurich “Ausländer” (foreigners) seems to be a never ceasing topic in some of the city’s free publications such as 20 Minuten. Certainly not all of the media coverage has been negative but it is true that in some cases the social stigma surrounding foreigners of all kind still exists. While we are at no shortage of migration statistics and figures, it’s very important that people aim to understand migration in a way that is more personal and not tainted by any political agendas. Here we have many people who benefit from living in Switzerland and have their own culture to share.
Switzers promotes inclusion and suggests that belonging to a country isn’t synonymous to owning a passport or being born there. The project welcomes discussion about cultural identity.
So…… What does it really mean to be Swiss?
One woman whose photo is featured in the display says, “Schweizer sein das hat weder mit der Hautfarbe noch mit der Herkunft zu tun: Es ist ein Geisteszustand.” In English this is loosely translated to, “ Being Swiss does not have to do with skin color or origin, it is a state of mind”.
Catch Switzers at HB until the 6th of September.
Words by Tamyra Denoon