The on the left is Frank Palombo, the former police chief in New Bern, North Carolina, a city I’d spent the last 15 years photographing. In 2006, an organization called Swiss Roots invited me to document New Bern as part of their mission to promote a positive image of Switzerland – my country – in the United States.
They approached me in part because my ancestor is the settler Christopher von Graffenried, who founded New Bern in 1710 after conflict with an Indian tribe known as Tuscarora. I knew nothing about him, and at first neither the project nor my family history interested me. But a month later, I changed my mind — it was a chance to find out if Swiss prejudices about George Bush’s 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 visit wounded soldiers from Iraq at a military hospital. Palombo had begun his career in the Air Force and later joined the Florida Police Department before settling in New Bern, where he left as chief in 1997. We got in the car and I sat in the front seat next to the driver. . To my surprise, a police communications officer joined in – the man put on his tie. I realized they wanted some control over the situation.
Despite the fact that I had spent the afternoon photographing disabled war veterans, this was the only photograph from the day I have included in the last photo book, Our Town. I often find my most interesting pictures by chance along the way – so the final destination is no longer so important. In my friend’s words and great influence, photographer Robert Frank: “You take the picture and 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 appear in the best possible light – everyone poses or is ready to have their photograph taken. During my first visit, the community welcomed me with enthusiasm: they liked that I was a descendant of the city’s founder. But the longer I spent there – I returned every year, stayed up to a month, observed and photographed – the more the atmosphere began to change. The situation in the police car reflected my overall experience. Over the years, residents became more and more cautious about my presence as they saw that my photographs did not present a promotional, touristy vision of the city, but the daily reality as I saw it.
New Bern seemed to me to be a shared place. Its history of racial conflicts and segregation – first between European settlers and Indians, later between white citizens and slave African Americans – did not feel like a distant past. The city is home to 30,000 people, 55% white and 33% black citizens, yet I rarely saw these communities mix. This sharp division was hardly recognized by the people I spoke to.
I named my project Our Town with reference to Thornton Wilder’s play of the same name from 1938. The idea of that piece is that the living do not see reality. Only when they die, in the last act, can they fully understand the environment they have left behind. In the same 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, the New Bernians 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 on, I could move the direction of the project, but also fight against my own racial blindness. Before that, I only had half the story of New Bern.
What was intended as a two-year project funded by Swiss Roots turned into an independent 15-year project. I became a photographer out of curiosity, but also to learn about myself. Although Our Town was a reflection of a community I did not belong to, it also held a mirror to myself. It allowed me to confront my own concerns and assumptions. That way, photography is my own personal therapy.
Michael von Graffenried’s CV
Born: Bern, Switzerland, 1957
Influence: “My friend Robert Frank.”
Climax: “To become the third Swiss after René Burri and Robert Frank to receive the Dr Erich Salomon Prize from the German Society for Photography.”
Low point: “My impatience.”
Top tip: “Be curious and open.”