Photographers' Blog

Germany’s one man bank

Gammesfeld, Germany

By Lisi Niesner, editing by Victoria Bryan

Peter Breiter, 41, is not your typical bank manager. He wears jeans and a jumper to work, he writes everything out by hand, and he’s also not afraid to use a mop to clean the floor. But neither is this a standard bank, staffed by a row of anonymous employees behind glass screens. The Raiffeisen Gammesfeld eG cooperative bank in southern Germany is one of the smallest in Germany and a visit here is like stepping back in time.

From the waiting area with ladies sharing local gossip to the office, where Breiter still uses a typewriter and an adding machine, the surface enamel worn away by years of use, things do not seem to have changed much since the bank was founded in 1890. Even the price list is shown in deutschmarks, with the euro equivalent hand written on.

The bank nearly didn’t make it this far though. At the end of the 1980s, Germany’s bank supervisory authority withdrew Gammesfeld’s operating licence as it didn’t have the requisite number of staff to meet the ‘second pair of eyes’ principle to double check transactions.

Fritz Vogt, manager at the time and whose grandfather founded the bank, faced a three-year jail sentence for illegally operating a bank and it was only after six trials and a ruling from the federal administrative court that the bank was given permission to operate without the usual two full-time employees. Vogt, now 82, handed over the running of the bank and its approximately 400 current accounts, in 2008 to Breiter, who left his career-focused job at a bigger bank in a neighboring town.

Breiter, whose suit now hangs unworn in the cupboard, says he took the job in Gammesfeld to prevent the bank from being gobbled up a bigger rival. “I’ve not regretted a single second,” he said, explaining how former colleagues had mocked him for leaving to join a ‘museum’.

Cubana sweet fifteen

Havana, Cuba

By Desmond Boylan

“I started saving up for my daughters’ quinceañera party [coming-out celebration for 15-year-olds] over five years ago,” says Marlen, the mother of Carmen, who reached the age of fifteen this month. “I managed to put away money every month, by doing some odd jobs, separating some also from my husband’s retirement pension and adding to that some help from my family in the east of the country, plus selling off some worn out clothes and repairing other garments.”

Marlen managed to save just over 8,000 Cuban pesos, close to $300.

In Cuba’s economy, you cannot just go to the bank and ask for a loan; there is no culture of credit. All payments must be made in cash, so if you want to buy something you must cough up the whole cost at the moment of purchase. With the average monthly salary around $18, it’s not easy to save. But as the Cubans say, it is not easy but it is not difficult either. The amount saved up for the quinceañera celebration is huge for parents and is a really admirable amount for an average Cuban family to achieve. In this case, merit is even higher as it was done mostly by Carmen’s mother.

All Cuban girls dream of having a special quinceañera celebration. It really is a big deal for them, as big as, or even bigger than, a wedding. It is also especially expensive as the costs must be borne by just one family.

Where your Christmas tree comes from

West Jefferson, North Carolina

By Chris Keane

Having lived in North Carolina my entire life we have always bought a real Christmas tree every December. Growing Christmas trees in North Carolina is serious business with over 1,600 active growers working 25,000 acres.

The last few years I have wanted to make the trip up to the mountains to photograph a Christmas tree farm. This year I did some research and found out that the White House Christmas tree was coming from North Carolina. Since the White House Christmas tree program began in 1966 North Carolina has led the states, with trees being chosen 12 times from here. This year Peak Farms won the honor of having a tree selected for the White House.

This was a perfect opportunity for my long-awaited trip. On Saturday before dawn I left my house to spend the day in the mountains, first watching the White House tree being cut down, then to document North Carolina Christmas tree farming.

On the French poverty precipice

Juan Les Pins, France

By Eric Gaillard

Several days prior to the winter truce for evictions in France for people who are behind on their rent, I asked myself how I could illustrate and make contacts with people who could help. The local associations I spoke with seeking help to make contact with those in precarious living situations were not helpful as they saw this as voyeurism, that these individuals were ashamed and would not permit a photographer to follow them.

Thinking that the story idea had hit a dead end, a local elected official from Antibes, 30 kms (18 miles) from Nice, informed me that he took care of people in precarious situations. At their local offices I studied their listing to learn that a man was living in an underground carpark in nearby Juan Les Pins. The official and I contacted Paul to explain the reason of my reportage. He accepted my invitation to meet.

Paul and I met along the beachfront of this chic summer holiday tourist city on the French Riviera where he explained his story. In 2005 he suffered an injury, followed by an operation, which resulted in disability, forcing him out of work. Then his wife, who continued to work to support the couple, died. Without resources to pay his rent, he was evicted.

The key to Greece’s economic crisis

By Yiorgos Karahalis

Mata Nikolarou, a jewellery shop owner in Athens, says she is not surprised that thousands of businesses in the capital have had to shut down.

“It was about time to happen. The market needed a clear off. Everyone in Greece had become a merchant, either by taking over their father’s shop or by taking out a cheap loan from the bank,” she said, explaining that most merchants had appeared out of the blue.

Almost a third of businesses and shops around the Greek capital have shut down over the last two years, as Greece’s crisis broke out and it agreed on a huge bailout package funded by the IMF and the European Union.

Learning the lessons of the slums

By Danish Siddiqui

If you are flying into Mumbai, the first thing you’ll see from mid-air are the visually beautiful rows of slums. I have always treated the slums and their inhabitants with respect.

GALLERY: MUMBAI’S SLUM LIFE

Every metropolitan city (at least in India) has slums, as more and more people travel to the cities for better opportunities. Unfortunately, not everyone is fortunate enough to live in a planned neighborhood.

Mumbai has a number of slums, the largest of which is called Dharavi. In fact, it is also one of Asia’s largest slums. I started photographing the slums of Dharavi when I moved to Mumbai two years ago. I tried to explore the slums block by block, lane by lane. I still haven’t finished half of it.

Luxury vacation for an unemployed family

By Susana Vera

Rafael Guerrero and his wife Luisa Diaz have been playing the lottery every Saturday ever since they got together. Three euros each week, same numbers every time, but no wins in more than fifteen years. This summer, however, Lady Luck finally smiled on them in the most unexpected way, and most importantly, for free.

SLIDESHOW: UNEMPLOYED FAMILY WINS BIG

While watching TV one day this past August, the Guerreros came across news of a contest from the Merchants Association of los Alcazares, a coastal town by the Mar Menor sea in southeastern Spain. The association promised a free week-long vacation at four-star hotels to three Spanish families with under-aged children who could prove that both parents had been unemployed for more than a year. Sadly, or luckily this time, the Guerrero-Diaz family met those requirements.

Rafael, 37, has been unemployed since June 2011, when the pipe coating factory where he had been working for five years closed down. His wife Luisa, 38, a former housekeeper, has been jobless since November 2010. The couple live with their two sons, Adrian, 4, and Rafael, 2, in a two-story home they purchased right before the start of the Spanish housing bubble in Hellin, in the Spanish region of Castilla la Mancha. “Had we waited another year to buy the house we would be far worse these days trying to make the monthly mortgage payments,” says Guerrero as he further explains that as of this month the family will have to get by with only the 800 euros he gets in unemployment benefits because his wife’s ran out in August.

Christmas comes early to China

By Carlos Barria

He Heping, who runs a factory that makes plastic Christmas trees in Yiwu, talks with one of his employees as they finish up a massive order destined for the Netherlands.

He started this business more than ten years ago after an uncle encouraged him to produce plastic Christmas trees. His company had been making knives, but the uncle had visited Serbia at the end of the Balkan War, and came home convinced that a product related to seasonal good cheer represented a better business prospect.

SLIDESHOW: CHINA’S CHRISTMAS FACTORIES

Christmas comes but once a year, but for Christmas decoration factories and retailers in China, it starts as early as July and ends in late September, when massive orders from around the world arrive in Yiwu, located 300 km (185 miles) south of Shanghai in the prosperous Zhejiang province. Yiwu is considered a bellwether for China’s low-cost exports, especially exports destined for emerging markets. Orders come from places as far away as Europe, the United States and South America.

On your bike Greece

By Yorgos Karahalis

Anyone who rode a bicycle through the jammed Athens center a few years ago was either admired or called “the madman of the village,” as an old Greek saying goes.

It’s not like that anymore. “You’re no longer the madman of the village, you are a person inspiring others on how they could live in the chaotic Athenian center using a bike,” said Tolis Tsimoyannis, a 42-year-old bicycle importer and himself a biker.

The boom in Greece’s bicycle market started about four years ago and has maintained its upward trend, with small periods of steady sales due to political and financial unrest in the country.

Transformer, Cuban style

By Desmond Boylan

“I am 70-years-old and I still feel strong, but legally I can’t work as a taxi driver because of my age,” Gilberto Ruiz told me the first time I met him. I had asked him about his pickup truck, a Ford, obviously pre-Revolution, with a shape I’d never seen.

He continued, “One day I suddenly had an idea. I’ll cut up my 1948 Ford Deluxe Sedan and weld it into a van and work the private transport business.”

My first thought was, “Wow, this man has imagination.” I immediately liked him and tried to get to know him better. I started to document his activity through pictures.

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