Photo © Annick Ramp / Biel/Bienne Festival of Photography / NCCR LIVES

Showing and discussing vulnerability in Switzerland is also looking at overcoming it

The National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES supported the work of three young photographers for six months. Their pictures will be displayed at the upcoming Biel/Bienne Festival of Photography from 29 April to 22 May 2016. A publication entitled Downs and Ups. Visual Insights into Vulnerability and Resilience during the Life Course gathers some of these pictures and, over three chapters, describes the issues at the heart of life course research. The festival will also be hosting a round table event on 13 May at the Biel Congress Centre on "In/Visibility: Vulnerability in Switzerland – a non-issue or a real taboo?"

In mid-2015 three young women won an invitation-based competition launched by the NCCR LIVES and the Biel/Bienne Festival of Photography. They had been asked to propose a project based on the concepts of vulnerability and resilience. The artists then had from July to December to create their images. The adventure is now reaching its climax with the exhibition of these three series at the festival, which opens on 29 April. But the adventure will not really end after the exhibition closes on 22 May, because a book is being released containing a selection of these photographs accompanied by texts that explain to the general public what the scientific approach is to life course research.

The photography projects

Simone Haug worked with retired acrobats – former nomads who had had to resort to a sedentary lifestyle, artists who had reverted to total anonymity, former gymnasts who had to cope with a failing body. In the publication Downs and Ups, this presents an opportunity for Prof. Laura Bernardi to explain how the many threads that weave our lives are interconnected and able to cause stress or, on the contrary, provide compensatory resources. Familial, professional, residential and health paths overlap and sometimes conflict, but they can also be sources of solutions with respect to each other. The safety net is not always where you expect it.

Delphine Schacher engaged with the residents of the Bois des Frères, a complex of wooden huts just outside Geneva, awakening the childhood memories of Prof. Dario Spini. The son of immigrants and now Director of NCCR LIVES, he contemplates through the eyes of an adult and a researcher the different levels at which these life courses have an impact – an observation starting from the physical body and ending with the social norms that govern us all. Precariousness, marginality, resourcefulness and hope collide in the both harsh and fraternal environment of the subjects of the photographs, and in the professor's analysis.

Annick Ramp accompanied a transgender person, Sandra, aiming to show the inherited strengths and weaknesses of an out-of-the-ordinary destiny, marked by suffering, struggles, and victories. The book provides an opportunity to understand the importance of observing life courses over time. There is a focus on the accumulation of disadvantages and on how individuals construct their own narrative, thus forging their identity on the basis of critical steps and transitions.

Stress and resources

Life course research is not familiar to the general public. In Switzerland it enjoys the support of the government, which has established a National Centre of Competence in Research funded for twelve years by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Since 2011 this has allowed roughly 150 researchers in the social sciences from a dozen universities and higher education institutions to conduct several longitudinal studies focusing on vulnerability, defined as a lack of resources (which can be psychological, physiological, social, economic, cultural and institutional) in the face of stressful events or phases in life (divorce, unemployment, migration, ageing, bereavement, etc.).

From this perspective, anyone can be affected by vulnerability at some point in their life. And as it is a dynamic phenomenon, it is not possible to conceive of vulnerability without its counterpart, resilience, whose origins need to be understood. Indeed, the study of life courses shows that while individuals are marked by their social and historical context, they also enjoy a certain capacity to act (what we call “agency”) and never stop developing throughout their lives.

Reaching the wider public

Part of the funding for NCCR LIVES is also intended for projects aiming to transfer knowledge to the general public, hence this collaboration with the Biel/Bienne Festival of Photography. The objective is first and foremost to use a language accessible to all – images – to address key issues that are often overlooked. Offering a platform for young photographers is another motivation for our research centre, which has already published several scientific articles focused on atypical occupations or the professional integration of young people.

As well as the three displays and the book, there will be a round table event on 13 May at the Biel Congress Centre. The issue of the visibility or invisibility of vulnerability in Switzerland will be discussed, with the aim of allowing debate with the public. Is vulnerability shown too much or not enough? Where can it be found? How can it be dealt with? Hosted by journalist Dominique Antenen, the event will bring together Felix Bühlmann, a sociologist at NCCR LIVES, Jérôme Cosandey, from Avenir Suisse, Eric Fehr, Mayor of Biel, Thérèse Frösch, co-president of the Swiss Conference of Social Action Institutions, and Delphine Schacher, photographer.

In a town at the crossroads of French and German cultures, with one of the highest rates of social assistance in Switzerland, this series of events in Biel promises an interesting national debate.

>> Exhibitions: Simone Haug: Acrobates !. Delphine Schacher: Bois des Frères. Annick Ramp: Sandra - Ich bin eben doch eine Frau. From 29 April to 22 May 2016, PhotoforumPasquArt, Biel.

>> Hélène Joye-Cagnard and Emmanuelle Marendaz Colle (eds.) (2016). Downs and Ups. Visual Insights into Vulnerability and Resilience during the Life Course. Ghent: Snoeck Publishers. 108 p. (trilingual FR/DE/EN). To order:

>> Round table In/Visibility: Vulnerability in Switzerland – a non-issue or a real taboo? 13 May at 6.15pm, Biel Conference Centre (simultaneous interpretation French/German).

>> Tour: Life courses by Dario Spini, Director of NCCR LIVES. Guided tour of exhibitions by Simone Haug, Annick Ramp and Delphine Schacher, 14 May from 4pm to 5.30pm.

>> Full programme of the Biel/Bienne Festival of Photography available at

© Simone Haug: self-portrait

Simone Haug: "I am fascinated by the potential for surrealism in the real"

The Bernese photographer undertook a task of great precision with five retired circus artists to illustrate vulnerability and resilience, the themes of the collaborative project between the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES and the Biel/Bienne Festival of Photography. Her poetic images feature in an exhibition and a book soon to be released.

Simone Haug resembles her photographs: subtle and delicate. She seems to brush over things, but also identifies and underlines them with a rare exactitude, highlighted by a playful vision. Her latest work, entitled Acrobates!, will be exhibited at the Biel/Bienne Festival of Photography from 29 April to 22 May 2016. The project is part of a mandate given by the NCCR LIVES and will also feature in the book, Downs and Ups, coinciding with the exhibition.

Simone chose the town of Biel as her home: "I have always loved the relaxed atmosphere. When I was still at school in Bern, I used to secretly take the train to Biel and sit in a coffee shop near the station. It's a town with possibilities, with a sincere spirit. It's warm and open. I feel that very strongly when I walk around here – there is an everyday culture. Even the supermarket cashiers are different in Biel. In Bern there are more labels, the weight of an official culture. Here things are more informal and direct."

So of course she is already familiar with the photography festival organised in Biel every year for the last 20 years. She has even already exhibited her works at the festival, with a friend in 2006: a series entitled Asile entre lieux et temps [Asylum between times and places]. But she is still a long way from considering herself an established photographer. Yet the 35-year-old confirms that things are getting better and better, with orders coming in. She also does interview transcriptions for sociologists – a task she appreciates: "I don't have to analyse, but it stimulates me," she explains.

Her photography project about retired circus artists shows five characters, including a couple, who she approached individually during the second half of 2015. She captures a great skilfulness and fragility, but also the force of these seniors with their heads still in the stars despite their diminished physical condition. Meet the author of these original and sensitive images.

How did you get into photography?

I have always liked to watch. Images figured prominently in my family. So photography seemed to be the ideal tool for producing images. I was quite young when I learnt to use a camera. It has become a sort of compass for me, for discovering the world and my environment. From my teens, it absorbed me more and more. I joined a group of autodidacts created in Zurich in the 80s. We invited experienced photographers, but self-organisation was the basic principle. Then I studied sociology, but what I really wanted to do was take photos. So I decided to take that direction, and went to the Hamburg fine arts university. I didn't want to go to a school purely for photography. I wanted to avoid being conditioned. I love being free, and I thought it was better to nourish my development differently.

What remains from your sociology studies?

I think sometimes it influences me subconsciously. It taught me to consider several points of view, and gave me a theoretical base. But the assertions bother me in that discipline. It's the same in photography: I refuse anything that categorises. I don't consider myself a creator of documentaries who proposes a definite message. What I like about sociology is the subject matter, not the methods. So I tried to stay away from them.

What is a good photo in your opinion?

For me, it's an image with a lot of freedom. It gives just enough information about the context, and leaves a lot of room for interpretation. I prefer the mix and balance between the abstract on one hand; and on the other hand, the minimum necessary number of concrete points of reference. I am fascinated by the potential for surrealism in the real. And I find that photography really makes it possible to portray that. What's more, being a photographer makes it possible for me to share things with people, and give something back, a sort of acknowledgement. That contributes to my interest in images too. For example, I'm impressed by the series by Iren Stehli, Libuna, which followed a woman throughout her whole life. That's one of the strengths of photography: it captures the dimension of passing time.

How did you work on this project about retired acrobats?

I have always been fascinated by the circus – a world of illusions where physical limits are constantly surpassed. But it was the invitation to bid by LIVES and the Biel Festival of Photography which gave me the idea to contact former acrobats. I love venturing into new worlds and meeting people. I don't usually stage my photos. But the artists are used to the stage. I wanted to work with them, do something together. When talking with them, staging the scenes came naturally. We didn't have a lot of time, but I am glad to have found a form which suited people in their situation. I like the mysteriousness of these pictures. It shows what circus artists like to do: create mystery for the audience. And I used black and white for several photos to make them more abstract. Being less realistic, it provokes the imagination. I also find that black and white underlines the notion of equilibrium which is integral to the subject.

How would you describe the resilience in your characters?

I see resilience in their everyday attitude. The professional life of a circus artist is uncompromising. Even retired, they are still acrobats in their minds. It shows, for example, when changing a light bulb. Not many retired wives climb onto their husband's shoulder for that! They are always wanting to play, to be on stage. The five people I met are all at peace with their former profession. Each of them had done what they could. They agreed on the fact that it was important to find the right time to stop. Each story is different, but they had all faced difficulties and found the strength to overcome different situations.

What are you most proud of in this project about the acrobats?

Of the projection, which will be shown in the exhibition during the Festival: I like the idea of creating a little show. It is a montage of photographs that are underlined by the sound of a Japanese drum. It's the first time I have exhibited this type of process. I had already used it for another project, but I had never shown it.

>> Simone Haug's page on the festival website

© Delphine Schacher: self-portrait

Delphine Schacher: "Accessing to invisible places" through photography

The photographer from Vaud presents her series Bois des Frères [Brothers' Wood], about the inhabitants of the former seasonal workers' huts in the Geneva suburb in a twofold project – an exhibition and a book; a collaborative project with the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES and the Biel/Bienne Festival of Photography.

Delphine Schacher's house, nestled in a valley just outside Begnins and adjoining the family sawmill, belonged to her grandparents. The photographer, born in 1981, has her roots in the region. This is where she took her first pictures, before even graduating from the Vevey School of photography. As one of the three prize-winners of the invitation-based competition launched by the NCCR LIVES with the theme "Vulnerability and Resilience", her photographs will be exhibited from 29 April to 22 May 2016 at the Biel/Bienne Festival of Photography. The photos also illustrate the book Downs and Ups associated with the project.

Delphine Schacher first received recognition for her work entitled Petite Robe de Fête [Little Party Dress], which portrayed young Romanian teenage girls in their Sunday best in a pastoral setting. It was a journey back in time – defying time too, as initially she went looking for people photographed by her father 20 years before, on a trip marking the twinning of their town with a Romanian village. "It was the first time my father travelled so far, and the first time I saw him cry. He was so moved by the people and their difficult living conditions," she tells. She, who ironically describes herself as "a modern-day explorer from the easyJet generation, hopping on an off planes so easily".

For the Biel LIVES project, she took her camera to the huts previously used to lodge seasonal workers, close to the Lignon housing estate, near the Cointrin airport. This precarious and dilapidated housing is still in use today. Now it is home to men with varying life stories. She spent time getting close to these men, and magnified their modesty and dignity. Interview.

How did you get into photography?

It all started when I was about 20. I am one of three children, and I was the only one without an artistic activity. My brother played the drums and my sister played the flute. As for me, I spent my teenage years partying while studying for an apprenticeship in business and a vocational Matura. But I didn't imagine I would do that all my life. I was looking for something more creative. So I started taking evening courses, first in sewing, then graphic design. But I wasn't convinced. Then I realised I liked collecting photos from newspapers. So I enrolled in a photography course in the area, and I was hooked immediately. We had to do photo reports. I enjoyed meeting people and entering places which would have been inaccessible without the photography alibi. The theme for my first report and exhibition for the course was "A night in the life of...". I chose to follow an employee who worked on a rotary press at the newspaper, Journal de la Côte. I loved feeling out of my element, that I had to make my own way. What's more, the press operator liked the photos and was pleased. So I continued in that direction and registered with the Focale club, which organises workshops. I had two months to work on the theme of "Shadows". Thanks to a socio-cultural worker who had set up a photo lab in the Lonay prison, I was able to follow jailed women. And there again I enjoyed accessing to invisible places.

Where did the inspiration for the Lignon huts idea come from?

It's a subject that I've had in mind for a long time. In 2010 I had to work on a project with the theme "Periphery" for Focale. I remembered having seen a television report about the workers' huts at the airport being destroyed. So I called the Unia union to find out if there were any remaining. That's when I found out about the Lignon site. Then, when I was studying photography at Vevey, I went back there. The place hadn't changed, but I felt like I'd worked too hastily, that I had missed the heart of the subject. I had taken a few portraits but I hadn't talked with the people. This time I was able to go into their homes. I took a step closer to them, not only physically, but emotionally. I dared to go further, looking for postures. I thought more carefully about how to create a scene. It helped that I had a mandate, that there were expectations. The theme "Vulnerability and Resilience" also guided my choices. I wanted to portray the men living in those huts – pay tribute to them. They aren't just people passing through.

How did you go about it?

I spent July and August 2015 observing. In some cases, I had already met them before. Then from September to December, I went on-site two to three times each week, sometimes during the day, sometimes in the evening. I didn't always take photos. Sometimes I just spent time with them. I wanted to feel the seasons passing, but I didn't want it to be clear which year it was. I prefer when it's not clear whether the photos were taken in the 70s, or the 90s, or now. That's why I avoided showing clothes with brands or shopping bags. The place is ageless! I also tried to give a pictorial theme to some of the images, certain attitudes... I shot 25 rolls of analogue film. It's a technique which makes you take your time, arrange things.

What's a good photo in your opinion?

First of all, the light has to be natural. There has to be something going on, something mysterious or disturbing: for example, a strange object, or a fragile position.

Which of the images do you think shows the most resilience?

I like the photo with the sausage grill in the shared kitchen. It shows people making do, managing with little room. They live like everyone else, but in a smaller space. And there is the portrait, taken in an instant, of Augusto in his snappy clothes with his frying pan. It's the image of a man who has bounced back. It seems to say, "I don't have a kitchen, but that doesn't stop me living a normal life and wearing a smart shirt." These people live with the bare minimum, but they are not despairing. That said, this is clearly not an objective description. I didn't see everyone, and some didn't want to be photographed. Perhaps it's much harder for them. But there are also beautiful examples of resilience. Such as José who is from Cap-Vert: he is one of my favourites – one of the first people I talked with in 2010. He barely spoke French then, and now he's found a job. He is manager in a scaffolding company. Scaffolding is his passion – a whole world. He showed me photos on his phone. I can tell you, since then I haven't seen scaffolding in the same way! Finally, there are those pictures featuring cats and caged birds. That may suggest confinement in confinement. But it also shows that people need someone to look after...

>> Delphine Schacher's page on the festival website

© Annick Ramp: self-portrait

Annick Ramp: “I hope that with my work on Sandra people can feel empathy”

For the bid on the topic “Vulnerability and Resilience”, the youngest winner of the LIVES photography grant, who is based in Zurich, produced portraits of a transgender person: Sandra. Her collection will be shown at the Biel/Bienne Festival of Photography and a selection of these images will be published in a book.

Among the three female photographers who participated in the project of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES and the Biel/Bienne Festival of Photography, Annick Ramp is the only one who has not yet reached the age of 30. But despite her young age, her career as a photographer is already well established. She will take one more step by exhibiting her portraits of Sandra, a transgender person, during the 20th edition of the festival between April 29 and May 22, 2016. Some of these pictures are also included in the book Downs and Ups.

Annick Ramp works as a photographer for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on a half-time basis, which she finds is a good balance allowing her to pursue more personal in-depth works. She lives in a popular district west of Zurich main station, a place she appreciates for its multicultural and relaxed atmosphere.

Her project on Sandra was selected to illustrate vulnerability and resilience because she has a real talent for approaching bodies and souls in an infinitely respectful way. Her photos depict a joyful person with also darker aspects, a complex figure who despite the lifelong struggles which have left their imprints has succeeded in overcoming a lot of suffering. We met Annick Ramp for some insights on her approach.

How did you come to photography?

After school I did a commercial apprenticeship but quickly realised that this would not make me happy. I knew that I would like to do something with photography but did not know how to proceed. My father was the one who got me in touch with photography at the first time. Then, when I was 19, I travelled to New Zealand. My parents lived there for 5 years and I was born in Auckland, but they left when I was 8 months old. So I wanted to see the place, meet the people, and this is where I started to take photos. I focused on lines, landscapes, not many people. Back in Switzerland I enrolled in a pre-course in art and later I left Schaffhausen for Zurich, where I knew I wanted to live. For one year I studied different kinds of art and visual communication. After that I enrolled for the degree course “Fotodesign” in Zurich. At this point I had the opportunity to get a one-year internship with a photographer, and there I figured out what really interests me, which is the kind of photography I do now, which is people oriented. After finishing my studies I got another internship with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, where I completed my training and eventually was lucky to be hired.

What are you looking for when photographing people?

I like showing different kinds of people, different ideas of life. During my first internship I took pictures of an eccentric man who is quite famous in Schaffhausen, named Heinz Möckli. For two months I stuck to him, and realised that this was not only a job for me. It also gives me something back. I love watching how human beings live in their environment and the multiple ways they have of seeing that environment. I am particularly interested in those people who do not live the regular way.

How did you meet Sandra?

For the final work of my studies I covered a specialised institution, which supports people who are partially or temporarily not able to live independently due to addiction problems, mental illnesses or other impairments. One evening Sandra was there, and I saw her again later at the bus station. I found her fascinating. She looked fragile and strong at the same time. I could see that she had good self-esteem. We talked, she sang. She looked female but there was also something masculine. She spoke openly about it, but she refused to pose for a photo. After that I always had her in mind. I tried to get in touch with her through Facebook, but she did not write back. I tried again through her music bandleader, and he suggested joining a rehearsal session on Thursdays. I went there and she remembered me. Then I proposed to take portraits of her and she accepted. It went this way for two or three months, but I did not know in which way I would bring her story together. And then the LIVES’ and Biel/Bienne Festival of Photography’s invitation arrived. The concept was there!

What do you think is the photo, in this collection, which exemplifies most the theme of resilience?

The one with the fog: it was not staged at all. We were in a theatre rehearsal and there was this machine that creates smoke, and I caught her next to it. Sometimes she’s loosing herself and escapes reality. She escapes to some other place, dreaming, eyes closed. This picture made me realise there is something to show about her, and also that it needs time to approach it.

How did you proceed with Sandra for this work?

I could not force anything. I never told her “You should do this or that”. We hung out for days and I had to catch the right moments. The most difficult thing for me, afterwards, was not so much to make choices, but to reduce to the very best pictures and make order out of them. It fascinates me to put a collection of photos together. It’s really intense. I can spend weeks moving scattered pictures on the floor until I decide which one is really necessary or not, which ones express the right view. It is also a question of respect for my subjects. I showed my selection to Sandra and she accepted to be seen also during the bad moments. She is completely aware of her story and she is conscious that she is not always in the best possible mood. It was important for me that she accepts and understands my choices, but did not let her influence me too much either. I hope that with my work on Sandra people can feel empathy. I find it weird that this society has this strange order of male versus female aspects.

What is a good image, in your sense?

First of all it has to touch me in some way. I appreciate if I can figure out that the photographer has done it with empathy, that the subject is not being used just for the sake of a good picture. I like photos that have something to say, which provoke emotions and also contain some poetry. I tend to look at photography in series, because often I find it difficult to understand something just with one picture. I think there can be more differentiated statements if pictures correspond with each other.

>> Annick Ramp's page on the Festival website