Photographers' Blog

‘Till the cows come home

Gruyeres, western Switzerland

By Denis Balibouse

In summer, some go to the seaside or countryside, visit a new city or country, but some choose to live a different way. The Murith family will not have a day off: they will work 15 hours a day, seven days a week from mid-May to mid-October.

I’ve known the Muriths for more than 10 years. Last December I called them to discuss the idea that I would photograph them over the 2013 summer. We met for lunch and over a meal I found out that Jacques, who is turning 65 (the official retirement age in Switzerland) was in the process of handing down his farm and its cheese-making business to the sixth generation: his 23-year-old son Alexandre. I was intrigued by this news, as I’ve been thinking a lot about agriculture in Switzerland, and how it faces a somewhat uncertain future, partly because the country is surrounded by EU nations with lower production and land costs, making it a tough way to earn a living. Despite this, exports have grown over the last 10 years and production has focused on quality.

I was struck by the intense concentration required during the six hour process. Because they’re working with what is essentially a living thing, every second counts: one minute too long and the cheese may be unsuitable for maturation, ruining hours of hard work. Every element, such as the temperature of the milk in the morning and the weather add a different combination of factors. Jacques’ senses were on alert: touch, sight, smell and taste especially. All the knowledge of the craftsman came in to play as he made the cheese. It’s not something you can learn in a book.

Jacques never actually studied cheese-making — he learned on the job. Each wheel of cheese weighs between 25 to 40 kilograms (55 to 88 lbs). Depending on the time of year one or two wheels can be produced per day. It takes a minimum of six months to mature but can last as long as 18 months depending on the quality required. The Murith family produce around 200 wheels each year from the unpasteurized milk from their herd of cows. It is not exported but can be bought directly from them.

INDUSTRY FACTBOX

• 35 % of the milk produced in Switzerland in 2012 was transformed into 450 different types of cheese, only 4.58% of which was exported
• Switzerland’s 8 million inhabitants ate 21.4 kg of cheese per capita in 2011, which is almost twice as much as the chocolate consumed
• 11 types of cheese are protected by a controlled denomination of origin (AOC) label. Gruyère cheese is gaining in popularity, compared to Emmenthal (commonly known as Swiss) cheese
• In 2012 exports increased by 3.7 % compared to 2011 figures and have increased every year since the start of liberalization of export duties with EU countries in 2005
• 70.4 % of Switzerland’s exported cheese was sent to neighboring countries (Germany, France and Italy)
• Some 6000 jobs depend directly on the Gruyère industry.

Switzerland’s next King?

Geneva, Switzerland

By Denis Balibouse

Prince Willem-Alexander was crowned King of the Netherlands in April, following the abdication of his mother, Queen Beatrix.

You might be wondering which country will be next to install a new monarch: England, Denmark or perhaps Sweden? I’ll give you a tip: it will probably be Switzerland, a country better known for its direct democracy, banks and chocolate than for having ‘royals’.

In fact, Switzerland has both a reigning King and Queen, although they are both quite different. Let me explain…

Swiss code of arms

Geneva and Zurich, Switzerland

By Denis Balibouse

I have quite a simple relationship with firearms. I don’t like them: their power scares me.

Unlike most Swiss men of my age I did not take part in compulsory military service in the Swiss Army (thanks to a torn knee ligament that saved me from a possibly awkward session with the Army psychologist during the recruitment process).

GALLERY: SWISS GUNS

When I was starting out as a photographer in my late teens I did some work for the French-language section of the Swiss Shooters newspaper. I had never felt so out of place in my life, what with everyone from teenagers to grandfathers wearing special outfits resembling some kind of Robocop get-up and armed to the teeth. Even with the hearing protection I would flinch with every one of their shots. It wasn’t the best environment in which to concentrate on getting my shot (pun intended), with hundreds taking part in the competition.

Clowning around with healthcare

Bern, Switzerland

By Pascal Lauener

The first time I meet Regula Kaltenrieder, a qualified acupuncturist, I didn’t know that she was one of the 200 Clown Doctors of the Theodora foundation.

The funny and loud crowd celebrated their 20th anniversary on the Federal Parliament Square in Bern. The foundation was founded in 1993 through the initiative of two brothers, André and Jan Poulie, who decided, in memory of their mother, to name the foundation Theodora. Outside Switzerland, the foundation is currently active in seven countries: England, Belarus, China, Spain, France, Italy and Turkey. After a chat with the media representative of the foundation and several phone calls and e-mails later they accepted a photographer to go on a visit with one of their clown doctors.

Last week I met Regula outside a Lebanese restaurant next to the main hospital, the Insel in Bern. She was drinking a cup of tea and chatting with four other women and the media representative of the foundation, who had to ask the parents for permission to take pictures during my visit with the clown doctor.

High-impact, high-altitude

By Pascal Lauener

Covering the big annual air show of the Swiss Air Force on the Axalp in the Bernese Oberland starts with me checking the weather radar for the next day, hoping for a big blue sky.

SLIDESHOW: SUPERSONIC JETS

As a photographer you know there will be great pictures full of action, because you are at the same altitude where the fighter jets pass you at full speed. This is a very rare situation.

This year’s Airshow on the Axalp attracted more then 7,000 spectators. Most of who hiked up to the 2200 meters above sea level high Swiss Air force training ground on the Axalp. The photographers with their equipment, and other selected guests, were offered a lift from the Air Base in Meiringen (in the valley) up to the Axalp by a Swiss Air Force Super Puma. The five minute ride was the first part of this extraordinary assignment. We could see all the spectators hiking up the steep mountain or those who had already been waiting a long time for the big show, shortly before having to get out of the helicopter on a small ridge on the Axalp near the control tower.

I believe I can fly

By Denis Balibouse

Everybody dreams of flying. Some have even burnt their wings trying to do it. So far, I’ve enjoyed it.

Thanks to my work as a photographer I’ve been lucky enough to experience flight in many different aircraft. I’ve flown in helicopters, paragliders and ultralight planes. I even did jobs for a well-known soft-drink company that proudly asserts that one of its products ‘gives you wings’.

On September 14, I moved one step higher up the ladder when I sat just behind the pilot of an L-39 C Albatros as part of a media demonstration flight prior to the air show in Sion, western Switzerland.

The next Black Swans

After almost every assignment I come back home grateful for the peak into the world I was offered or the people I met. This last week was no exception as I covered the 39th Prix de Lausanne, an international dance competition for young dancers.

Ballet dancer Komine Saya from Japan performs her classical variation during the Prix de Lausanne semi-final competition in Lausanne February 5, 2011.   REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud
(click on the image above to view a multimedia presentation)

Some 75 candidates aged between 15 to 18 from 19 countries competed at the Palais de Beaulieu Theatre in Lausanne, Switzerland. The young dancers that made their way to the finals were either awarded with a scholarship granting free access to the finest dance schools or with an apprenticeship allowing them to be accepted without an audition to the most renowned ballet companies. In addition to the final and semi-final on the two last days of the event, the first four days were dedicated to training classes and rehearsals of the competition variations. The competitors were judged as they performed their classical and contemporary variation in front of the public during the finals but the jury also evaluated the candidates for their performance in the ballet and contemporary classes.

Ballet dancers perform during a contemporary class at the Prix de Lausanne in Lausanne February 1, 2011.   REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

I photographed two days of the preparation and the semi-finals, following the dancers through the different aspects of the competition leading up to the final. This included early morning warm-ups in the studios, individual coaching sessions on stage, backstage preparation and the semi-final leading to the selection of the 20 finalists. More photo opportunities than any photographer could hope for! These dancers devote their life to their passion, spending three days witnessing their rigorous training and the realization of their dream as they performed in front of the public was, once again, one of these assignments I come back home grateful for.

Shooting deep under the peaks of the Swiss Alps

After over a decade of work Swiss engineers drilling the world’s longest tunnel broke through the last section of rock. With a length of 57 km (35 miles) crossing the Alps, the train tunnel should become operational at the end of 2017. The pictures coverage of the final break-through at the Faido-Sedrun section, shooting and transmitting the pictures from the intestines of the earth was a rare and difficult challenge for Zurich based Reuters photographers Arnd Wiegmann and Christian Hartmann.

Working on this major Swiss story for the past few years and covering all major steps of the construction, we decided to go underground some days before the ceremony, to produce pictures to illustrate preview stories. Our images were very well published in the week before ‘Drilling D-Day’.

Visitors walk through the construction site of the NEAT Gotthard Base Tunnel at the Erstfeld-Amsteg section October 5, 2010.    REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

While working underground we managed to secure an internet connection, essential to send out our pictures promptly. To shoot the right images is important, but to make them available for clients as soon as possible is the basis of our wire agency business.

Base jumping, Lauterbrunnen

It was a very busy summer for us in Switzerland, covering topics such as politics, sport, business and even the weather. After shooting all these events, my colleague Pascal Lauener and I finally found time to cover base jumping in the Swiss village of Lauterbrunnen. Fortunately, we met a local mountain guide who introduced us to a group of base jumpers called Team Ill Vision. On the first day, we had the chance to do an interview with the local priest who, over the past 18 years, has grown to know the valley and its residents.

We slept in the car during the night in Lauterbrunnen, as we planned to photograph the valley at dark through long exposures, showing the cliffs under the starry sky. Because we knew we would be photographing during most of the night and only sleeping a few hours, it wasn’t worth finding a hotel. After sleeping for a few hours, we rose early to go with Team Ill Vision and the mountain guide Martin Schuermann to the exit point, known as “Highnose”, from where base jumpers bail out into the Lauterbrunnen Valley.

We mounted cords to secure us in a climbing harness. And we had the mountain guide set up a remote camera on a cord about one meter under the jumpers for a different angle. These remotes allowed us to get pictures from three different angles of the same jump.

Swiss cliche: alphorn festival

A Swiss mountain, Swiss flags thrown into the air and about 120 alphorn players in traditional clothes: Each summer the alp Tracouet in Nendaz, southern Switzerland, is the stage of an alphorn contest and festival -  Swiss folklore the way you might have pictured it.

This year was no exception as the mountains echoed the International alphorn festival once again.

International? For sure! Joseph and Virginia Anderer tell us why in this audio slideshow.