A Love Letter to Photography. And About My Brothers

My favourite photograph I took this year—or maybe ever—is a picture that's only for me. I waited five months to shoot it, and then I promised the person in the photo not to show it to anyone, so it's just sitting on a hard drive. Every once in a while I look at it when I'm alone. I'm so glad I took it, and it reassures me, but every viewing reminds me of that time that's gone, and then my heart breaks a little. Photography can be so intimate, and so melancholy: Every time I press the shutter, it's an acknowledgement that the moment I've just photographed has passed.

When the commercial branch of my photography suddenly fell away during my sabbatical, I re-defined my relationship to the medium. I’m not sure if “disillusioned” is the right word to describe how I felt about photography before (yet I was certainly disillusioned with my job in general). But when I wasn’t shooting assignments and could potentially put my cameras away for weeks and weeks on end, which I expected to be a relief, I realized that I didn’t want to put them away! I wanted to take lots of pictures. I need to take pictures, in order to keep my sanity, and to make sense of what’s going on around me. I need photography to feel alive. It’s no frickin’ coincidence I’ve been taking pictures since I was a kid. I definitely experienced a “Duh, Elisabeth!” moment.


I always have a couple of personal photo projects going on, and I’ve always been forced to take pictures by some inner urgency or restlessness. “I’m going to regret it if I don’t! The days are long but the years are short.” Sometimes this compulsion feels like a burden and makes me envy my colleagues who shoot assignments and nothing else, and otherwise go about their lives. A teacher of mine once commented in class: “Photography is like a dog, it follows you everywhere,” and I knew exactly what he meant. During my sabbatical I came to think that maybe it wasn’t so terrible to have this dog in my life, and to be so obsessed with photography.


Taking a picture of something or someone for me imparts meaning to a moment. It helps me to find out what or who’s important in my life, just like how writing helps me to find out what I’m thinking. (Joan Didion said this way more eloquently: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” It’s interesting that she mentions “looking” and “seeing” in connection with writing.) And of course photography is a means to an end for me, a way to make a living, and also a license to walk out, be alone, and to connect to the world. Looking through a lens has always given me purpose, and it helps me to learn about things and to see clearly. But while the camera is certainly a great tool and a key to travel the globe, I’ve only recently realized that the pictures I treasure most are of the people I love most. Maybe this is something totally obvious for many photographers, but it wasn’t at all for me.


Enter the photographs of my brothers. A couple of weeks ago, I suddenly noticed that my brothers Johannes, Matthias and Sebastian are the people I’ve photographed most consistently in my life. Friends and lovers come and go, but my brothers can’t escape. (Thankfully, some friends have stayed as well and are used to being photographed by me by now.) Over Christmas, I went through boxes of negatives and contact sheets, and scanned a bunch of pictures of my siblings, some of which are thirty years old: I shot them with my first camera, a Kodak Instamatic my dad gave me when I was about eight. It used some kind of weird film cassettes, and developing them was quite expensive. My dad dropped dozens of these cassettes off at the drugstore and returned with prints and negatives. Thankfully, my parents never once complained about these expenses, and I might actually owe my career to that fact.


When I was ten, I bought a used SLR, a Fujica with a 50mm lens. My mom taught me how to use it, and I shot with it until I bought a Nikon F4 nine years later. Sadly, I have no idea where those Fujica negatives are. I hadn’t known then that a photographer’s work isn’t worth much without a decent archival system.


In high school I used to drag my brothers out of bed on Saturday mornings for group shots of the four of us. Why? Nobody knows. Usually, the results were questionable, but my brothers didn’t complain about these sittings. Amazingly, they’ve complied with pretty much all of my “good” photo ideas I’ve had in my 38 years. That’s why they are the best brothers a sister could ever wish for.


In art school I carried a point-and-shoot Yashica with me everywhere and took pictures when we were together: On a trip to Amsterdam, in a shabby hotel room shooting the breeze, Sebastian sketching, me photographing, while Johannes and Matthias were busy smoking up. On mountain hikes, on boat rides, with parents and grandparents, and whenever they visited me in my tiny student apartment. I found so many photos I didn’t even remember taking, like studio pictures of Johannes for his first EP and band rehearsal shots. (Little known fact: I was once a metalhead too! In the tender age of 17 and 14 respectively, J and I attended Type O Negative gigs together and once even chatted with Pete Steele while he was eating a cheeseburger!)


Interestingly enough I didn’t take a single picture of Matthias and me living together in 2010, probably because we were slamming doors and yelling at each other a lot. After a year-long truce, the first pictures I continued to take of him were from Barcelona in 2012 when he studied at the local university with his girlfriend Katja (who’s since become a fixture in these photos as well). Some months later, the two of us embarked on an epic trip through the Americas for a client of mine during which he worked as my assistant.


During my scanning work, I was surprised to notice that my youngest brother, Sebastian, is the most unguarded of the three, with an open gaze in almost all pictures. He’s trusting and accommodating in front of my lens, and probably intuitively understands best why I do what I do. “Sebastian, jump off this box!” “Awesome idea! There! Did you get it? I can do it again if you want.”


Being able to sort through these pictures is such a gift, and I’m so very happy I took them, and also kind of surprised to discover just how many I took! They are all of perfectly mundane moments. It’s the time gone by and the consistency and the coming of age of the three boys together that makes them special, and I loved assembling the photos like a body of work. For as much as they’re portraits of my brothers, they’re also portraits of me, as their sister, and as a photographer.

Seelispitz OW, ca. 1988

Morcote TI, ca. 1989

Wittnau AG, 1999

Paris, ca. 2000

Zürich, 2000

Amsterdam, 2002

Wittnau AG, ca. 2003

Zürich, 2002

Wittnau AG, 2002

Zürich, ca. 2002

Seelispitz OW, 2003

Vierwaldstättersee, 2003

Zürich, 2003

Wittnau AG, 2004

Wittnau AG, 2004

On the way to Italy, 2005

Zürich, 2007

Somewhere in Zürich’s suburbia, ca. 2007

Wittnau AG, 2008

Mountains of Death Festival, Muotathal SZ, 2008

Wittnau AG, 2009

Stein AG, 2009

Kölliken AG, 2009

Paris, 2009

Christmas, 2011

Barcelona, 2012

Balloon ride over Kölliken AG, 2012

Christmas, Frick AG, 2012

São Paulo, 2013

Los Angeles, 2013

Zürich, 2014

Kölliken AG, 2015

Seelispitz OW, 2015

Pontresina GR, 2016

Zürich, 2017

Christmas, Frick AG, 2017