Schmid is a Swiss photographer who is considered to be among the best in the world and many of his works are well known. Often, his pictures cause the viewer a brief moment of confusion and thought before the light bulb goes on. Schmid has achieved what every photographer dreams of: He has created images that have become cult – that have become burned into our collective memories. For that, he has been canonized by the art world and his works hang in museums around the globe. And of course Schmid is more than just a photographer: He also makes films, writes, organizes performances and concerts and transforms rooms into installations.
So why is a music magazine writing about Schmid? The simple answer would be: because he has also photographed so many rock stars. But that is only one part of the truth. The larger answer is that the divide between music and photography is a fluid one, particularly with someone like Schmid. All of his images are rock, they throw themselves at the viewer. And because Schmid is the rock star of the photo world. He himself would deny it, but it’s true.
And is it not fitting that an aging, 68-year-old rock star is now gathering his strength for one final, large project? The clock. Phnom Penh. That’s the one.
Gathering strength for one final project. The big one. Phnom Penh.
Schmid visited Cambodia for the first time in the late 1970s. It was during the reign of Pol Pot and the photographer still can’t understand how the West could simply stand by and watch the Khmer Rouge. He can’t understand why nobody stopped the killing and why the regime’s past was never seriously addressed. Still today, the practice continues in Cambodia of pouring acid on children to punish them for small infractions – or simply arbitrarily. Schmid met girls whose faces had been taken from them. He wanted to help them, but didn’t know how. He learned that some of those who had been mutilated lived on a garbage dump, so he moved there himself. It was his way of adapting to the circumstances.
“Our children in Europe have rights. The right to education, to medical care, to water, even to love,” Schmid says in his Zürich studio. “But in Cambodia, the children are just trying to survive, not even to live. WHY?” Schmid fires the question into the room, where it hangs, large and heavy. Schmid goes silent.
Early on, he wanted to help on his own. It was the natural reaction of someone who was horrified by the situation. Schmid bought sacks of rice, brought medicines from Switzerland, and handed out mineral water and powdered milk. He continued for two years – two years that drained the photographer. One day, as he was sitting on the bed of a truck loaded with rice, he thought to himself: “Hannes, what are you doing here. This isn’t the way. You’ll be buying rice for the next 20 years and in the end, you will have achieved nothing.”
Schmid began to plan a different kind of support: broader and more sustainable. He began to think globally. Together with the lawyer Dominique Ruetimann, Schmid founded the Smiling Gecko project, which is registered as a club in Switzerland but as an NGO in Cambodia, an arrangement that makes it easier for him to buy land. Previously, Schmid had taken small steps, but now he had made a quantum leap.