INTERVIEW WITH MONIKA FISCHER AND MATHIAS BRASCHLER
Journalist Nadine Olonetzky interviewed Mathias Braschler (*1969 in Aargau) and Monika Fischer (*1971 in the Rhine Valley, Switzerland) about their book, The Human Face of Climate Change. The two photo-journalists spent eight months traveling through sixteen countries and across every continent, in the attempt to put a face to climate change.
How did you wind up choosing photography?
Mathias Braschler: That’s a funny story! Like many young people, I wanted to travel on an Interrail ticket; I needed money and had neglected to get a summer job. Then suddenly up popped a chance to work for the village photographer, who was a friend of my parents. He had a photography studio, and took passport photos. Then I read a biography of Robert Capa, saw the 2000 Magnum exhibition at the Kunsthaus in Zurich, and was totally fascinated. So, at first, I was interested in the technology, and then it was Magnum and Capa, Werner Bischof, Henri Cartier-Bresson. That you can tell stories as a photographer—that was the starting point. After graduating from high school, though, I didn’t feel mature enough for photography. First, I spent two years studying geography and modern history, and began teaching myself photography, taking pictures for publications such as the university newspaper. I left university when I finally had a profound sense that I would make it as a photographer. Luckily enough, I was able to attend workshops conducted by the photographer Alberto Venzago, and relatively soon, I began to earn a living at photography. Magnum was my role model.
Monika Fischer: I studied Romance languages, German, and geography—we also met during our first year at university—but I wanted to work in the theater and had an unpaid internship and was an assistant at theaters, such as the Schauspielhaus in Zurich and the Zurich Opera. I spent a semester studying abroad in Madrid, got to know the director Jürgen Flimm, and became his assistant at the Zurich Opera. Being a member of the crew, dealing with all of the workshops, the musicians and singers, and then putting up a show on stage in just six weeks—that was really great. Sometimes, though, I was a little envious of Mathias, because he was able to travel so much! At the time I was very interested in South American literature—Gabriel Garcia Marques, for example. At some point I just wanted to travel, meet real people. Real life seemed somewhat surrealistic to me, compared to all of the imaginary things that we produced on stage. Oddly enough, though, our first project together was an opera in Manaus! It was based on Fitzcarraldo, and all of the musicians were from Eastern Europe.
Mathias Braschler: At first I traveled by myself, but then I met these musicians, who seemed like “displaced artists” to me, and my idea was to do portraits of them that would express that. But first I called Monika and told her that she had to fly to Manaus right away! We did the portraits together then; that was in 2002. As I said, Magnum photography was my ideal; I used the Nikon F3 or the Leica M6, without a flash. But then 9/11 occurred. I happened to be in New York at the time, and Newsweek commissioned me to spend two weeks photographing an exclusive report of the catastrophe for them. For the first time, I found myself in a real Magnum kind of situation. Something terrible had happened, and I was supposed to capture the events in pictures. It was a crucial experience, because I realized that it was not in my nature to take photographs when people were suffering in that way, from that kind of catastrophe. I really wanted to either help or step back, give people room. I began to avoid doing this kind of photojournalism, and Monika and I began turning to portrait photography.
Did you, Monika Fischer, start studying photography, along with your academic and theater work?
Monika Fischer: No, I grew into the job, learned by doing it. I’m also an autodidact, although at the start of our relationship I took over the task of working with the archives. Even though I enjoyed being part of a big crew at the theater, photography brings with it the freedom to travel, and that’s wonderful for me. Because we take portraits, we get to meet many different people. An exchange takes place; we get some insight into their lives. I’ve always liked that very much.
Climate change is a theme that is floating around, but in order to make the kind of journey you did, a real sense of urgency is needed. Why did you decide to undertake it?
Mathias Braschler: We always choose socially relevant themes. We’re interested in politics, and photography offers the chance to do something within a very small framework, yet still goes beyond the minimum of what people do in society—casting a ballot, going to vote. We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to work regularly with large magazines such as Stern, The Guardian Magazine, or Vanity Fair Italia. Since we can publish twenty pages of pictures, we can stick with themes that are important to us. The Human Face of Climate Change came out of our trip to China. On our thirty-thousand-kilometer journey through China we were able to observe, in a kind of fast-motion, what happens when a country develops very rapidly. In some regions people live as they did a thousand years ago, and beside them are extremely modern districts, where you can see the environmental destruction, the unbelievably huge burden that man has become for nature. We got the idea for a project about climate change there, even though it is a global problem.
Monika Fischer: One problem with news reports about climate change is that, sometimes, they create the impression that it’s a local phenomenon. That makes it relatively easy to distance yourself from individual reports. So we wanted to document climate change in places all around the world; then it would not be so easy to set aside the whole phenomenon. Everyone is affected by it, and this is just the beginning, after all. But in 2009, when we started the project, we ourselves were having the most unbelievable discussions with our friends about whether or not climate change was real. Many said that it was the kind of media hype that occurred in the 1980s, with the bark beetles and the dying forests. It’s much easier to present the consequences of sudden catastrophes, such as earthquakes or tsunamis, than it is to depict the symptoms of a creeping process.
How did you prepare for the project, choose the locations, determine your route?
Monika Fischer: We spent about six months doing research—reading books and articles on climate change, meeting a variety of scientists. We wanted to know: where exactly is climate change occurring? And how? Sometimes it’s very difficult to tell if something is the result of climate change or of damaging, human behavior; there are always different factors at play, of course. So it was important to distinguish what is a climate change problem, and what is not. Lake Aral, for instance, would have been a good site for us, but it is so terribly diminished because people have used way too much water. And then we also wanted to represent a variety of climate zones and types of landscapes.
Mathias Braschler: We were aware that we might be attacked by people who deny that climate change is occurring. So we had to be very careful with our research, meet experts, find airtight, watertight examples. Environmental organizations also tried to get us to go to some locations where the damage was not mainly the result of climate change, but it was very important to be very precise and careful here.
How did you finance the trip?
Mathias Braschler: We almost always work with several, relatively large media partners, and sell each one the publishing rights for their regions. For this project, we had Stern for the German-speaking countries, The Guardian Magazine for the English-speaking regions, Le Monde for France, and Vanity Fair Italia for Italy. These media outlets are still in a position to offer larger sums for these kinds of big projects. It wasn’t enough, however. We asked Kofi Annan’s Global Humanitarian Forum—which unfortunately no longer exists—if we could present the project, and Walter Fust, the director, supported us by giving us a deficit guarantee of fifty thousand Swiss Francs. We were very lucky there.
Monika Fischer: Our travel expenses were quite high. Some places were not easy to reach—Kiribati, for instance. We weren’t able to just board an airplane and disembark after three hours . . . We also needed translators everywhere, so that people could talk to us in their own languages. When we arrived somewhere, on an atoll or in a remote village, we first had to get used to the place, get to know the way the society worked, find the people who could introduce us. In every country, in every culture, there were new models.
How did you find the people portrayed in your book?
Mathias Braschler: We worked with local guides, with people who understood what we wanted to do. They took us to the right places and people. It was important for us not to organize everything from Switzerland, so that, for instance, a farmer in the Himalayas could be “briefed” by NGO employees about what he should tell us. So we waited until we arrived to figure out who would be the right person. And there really are enough people who are suffering from climate change!
Once you found a person or a family you wanted to portray, how did you proceed? How did you select the location for the portrait?
Monika Fischer: We chose the location for each portrait, and of course, we wanted the surroundings to have something to do with the people and the theme. We photographed people where they lived, so we didn’t go to the neighboring village, for example, because it was prettier. A family in Cuba, for instance, had assembled a little kitchen out of the ruins left by a hurricane; you can see it in the background.
Mathias Braschler: We decided where people should stand. But then we also watched them to see how they behaved in the situation. How does someone act, what does someone do, when he doesn’t feel as if he’s being observed? We also tried to work with that.
I noticed that the angle of perspective in your portraits is unusual: almost everyone seems to be photographed from a slightly lower angle, and the surroundings are like a small stage. And the people in the portraits are serious and don’t seem to be pretending at all.
Monika Fischer: We have the framing, the lighting, the environment, the people. We also give the people a certain amount of room to play, so that they present themselves as they wish; that is part of the picture. First, we show them Polaroids. Their reaction to the initial photograph also influences the portrait. We definitely want people to come from a position of strength. Even though they’re victims of climate change, we don’t want to look down upon them, so to speak. We want to give them a voice, to portray them with a sense of dignity. Everyone has his pride, and it’s important to honor the fact that these people are fighting back and trying to adapt.
Mathias Braschler: Another advantage of the lower camera position is that it frames people a little bit more freely against the sky, and they don’t disappear in front of bushes or houses. So the surroundings don’t dominate everything and you can really perceive the humanity of each person.
Were you always sure that the portraits should be in color? And how many portraits did you include in the book?
Monika Fischer: In order to clearly distinguish among the different cultures, it was important to us to do the portraits in color. We work with the medium-sized Hasselblad camera and the large Linhof. The negatives—unfortunately, they’re going to stop making the color negative film, Kodak 160 MC, soon—we digitalized the negatives and delivered the data to the media. We retouched the pictures as much as was necessary, but didn’t alter anything with Photoshop.
Mathias Braschler: We used sixty of the approximately ninety portraits.
Were there people who didn’t want to be photographed?
Mathias Braschler: No, everyone was willing. However, there were people—in Australia, for example, or the United States—who were obviously suffering from the consequences of climate change, but still completely denied its existence. We had an extreme example of that right at the start of our trip, in Australia. It was 47 degrees Celsius in the shade, the hottest day in recent Australian history, but the mayor of Deniliquin came to our motel and declared that climate change was not real. But the systems set up by the farmers over two or three generations had to be abandoned. That was happening right there, on the doorstep.
Monika Fischer: Someone also told us that many farmers had committed suicide, because they couldn’t envision the future anymore; everything that had been built up could no longer be sustained as before. It was mainly in the industrialized countries, in the United States, in Australia, but also in Spain, that we encountered the refusal to perceive climate change.
If you read the harrowing reports of the people you’ve photographed, you can see that the effects of climate change have left many with no other choice but to leave the places they call home, when they would actually prefer to stay.
Monika Fischer: That’s especially the case with people who are still living in subsistence economies; the effects are enormous. Even though they are trying to adapt—fishermen are becoming farmers, and farmers are becoming nomads, or vice-versa, still, many social conflicts arise out of this forced change.
Mathias Braschler: We are going to be faced with a gigantic problem. We observed that all of these people are already living on the edge. In the Sahel, for instance, things will certainly get worse in the next twenty years, and these people will have to leave their region.
Monika Fischer: We could see that in Bangladesh, too. There’s rural flight, people are moving to the cities. In Dakar, three million of the city’s twelve million inhabitants live in slums, and one million of them are plainly climate change refugees. And this is a conservative estimate. You can see what happens when these people move from rural areas to the city. Or on the Pacific islands: people there live on their atoll, go fishing, grow vegetables, live simple lives without money—actually the most sustainable kind of life that a person can lead. Young people now have to go to Australia to be educated, learn how to deal with money, and live in the houses there. Even though they don’t want to, they have to take on a completely new lifestyle. For this reason, one big theme at the Global Humanitarian Forum (GHF) was “Climate Justice.” Because the first people affected are those who live on less than one dollar a day, and have no reserves. So it affects those who have contributed the least to climate change. And those who live in close connection to nature see the changes first. That’s the case in Switzerland, too, by the way. Mountain guides and shepherds see the changes faster than city dwellers.
Mathias Braschler: It’s extremely difficult to convey the fact that it’s getting warmer and warmer. Since climate change is slow, people get used to floods, huge storms, or monster hurricanes, in a certain way. Right now, only insurance companies are concerned about the huge effects of this creeping process—Swiss Re, for instance, has a department that deals only with climate change. The eleven hottest years since scientific record keeping began in 1850 have all occurred within the past fifteen years. You can see that weather phenomena, which used to occur rarely or even once every five hundred years, are now occurring more frequently and with unusual intensity. Last year Swiss Re had to deal with more than one hundred events that caused a lot of damage, which could all be traced back to climate change. The numbers show that events are occurring more frequently.
How did you conduct the interviews?
Monika Fischer: Many people aren’t familiar with the term “climate change.” We sat with them, photographed them, and interviewed them with the help of interpreters. The questions were: What has changed? What do you see, what are your problems? We captured the answers with the video camera.
Mathias Braschler: What these people have to say is very impressive. We have about five hundred gigabytes of video interviews and would actually like to make a film with the material, which we’d like to show at these exhibitions. That’s our next project!
What are your plans—how will you continue with the Fates of Climate Change?
Mathias Braschler: Exhibitions are important to us, so that the photographs will appear in newspapers, and so that the book will also be noticed. We’ve already had feedback from the scientific side. The Institute for Atmospheric Physics and Climate Science at the ETH in Zurich, for instance, has invited us to show the project. Even though scientists deal with the theoretical sides of the problem, they’d like to know what they’re working for, so to speak.
Monika Fischer: We have a responsibility to the people we’ve portrayed. Many were excited to know that someone was finally interested in their situation. We can’t solve their problems, but we promised that we would try to tell as many other people as we could about it, to let them know what’s going on there. Through the portraits and the original texts we can address an emotional level without coming off as starry-eyed idealists. If we can somehow persuade even just a few to reconsider their behavior, then that’s a small victory.