TThe guy on the left is Frank Palombo, the former police chief in New Bern, North Carolina, a town I’ve spent the past 15 years photographing. In 2006, an organization called Swiss Roots invited me to document New Bern as part of its mission to promote a positive image of Switzerland – my country – in the United States.
They approached me in part because my ancestor is Colonist Christopher von Graffenried, who founded New Bern in 1710 after a conflict with a Native American tribe known as Tuscarora. I did not know anything about him and, at the beginning, neither the project nor my family history interested me. But a month later, I changed my mind – it was an opportunity to find out if George Bush’s Swiss prejudices about America were true.
One of the first things I did was ask the New Bern Police if I could follow one of their vehicles for a few days. Palombo invited me to join him to visit wounded soldiers returning from Iraq in a military hospital. Palombo had started his career in the Air Force and then joined the Florida Police Force before moving to New Bern, where he ended up as Chief in 1997. We got in the car and I sat down. in the front seat, next to the driver. To my surprise, a police communications officer joined us – the man putting on his tie. I realized they wanted to have some control over the situation.
Although I spent the afternoon photographing disabled war veterans, it was the only photo from that day that I included in the final photo book, Our Town. I often find my most interesting shots by chance, along the way – so the final destination isn’t that important anymore. In the words of my friend and great influence, photographer Robert Frank: “You take the picture and you run. A photograph is not interesting when the subjects have time to compose themselves.
I began to see New Bern as a microcosm of the whole country. In America – a place where everyone knows they have to look the best they can be – everyone is posing or ready to have their picture taken. During my first visit, the community greeted me with enthusiasm: they appreciated the fact that I am a descendant of the founder of the city. But the longer I stayed there – I went back every year, staying up to a month, observing and photographing – the more the atmosphere began to change. The situation in the police car reflected my overall experience. Over the years, the inhabitants are more and more wary of my presence because they see that my photographs do not present a promotional and tourist vision of the city, but the daily reality as I saw it.
New Bern seemed like a divided place to me. Its history of racial conflict and segregation – first between European settlers and Native Americans, later between white citizens and enslaved African Americans – did not sound like the distant past. The city has 30,000 inhabitants, 55% white and 33% black, yet I have rarely seen these communities mix. This blatant division was hardly recognized by those I spoke to.
I named my project Our Town, after Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play of the same name. The idea of this piece is that the living do not see reality. It is only after they die, in the final act, that they can fully understand the environment they left behind. In a similar sense, my photography is about capturing a reality that people are blind to, not just showing them what they see or want to see. Like the rest of the world, New Bernese woke up after George Floyd’s death in May 2020 and began to question their separation.
I had realized my own shortcomings a few years earlier. One Sunday morning, I walked into a local African American church. I was the only white person and the pastor invited me to introduce myself to the congregation and explain my work. From that moment, I was able to change the direction of the project, but also to fight against my own racial blindness. Before that, I only had half the history of New Bern.
What was to be a two-year project funded by Swiss Roots turned into a 15-year independent project. I became a photographer out of curiosity, but also to get to know myself. While Our City was the reflection of a community to which I did not belong, it also showed me a mirror. It allowed me to confront my own anxieties and hypotheses. In this sense, photography is my personal therapy.
Michael von Graffenried’s CV
Born: Bern, Switzerland, 1957
Influences: “My friend Robert Frank.”
High point: “To become the third Swiss after René Burri and Robert Frank to receive the Dr Erich Salomon Prize from the German Photography Society.
Low point: “My impatience.”
The best advice: “Be curious and open.”