Hannes Schmid

Schmid and How He Saw the World


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Hannes Schmid has achieved everything there is to achieve in photography. He has photographed the biggest rock stars, the most beautiful models and the Marlboro Man. He has become one of the best known photographers in the world and could simply sit back on his laurels if he wanted. But there’s one project that won’t leave him in peace – a project that is to be his legacy. We visited him in his studio.

  • Author: Carlo Roschinsky
  • Photos: Johannes Siemes, Hannes Schmid
  • Video: Moodmacher

When night falls over Zürich, Hannes Schmid is awake. He can’t sleep – he doesn’t want to either. Indeed, he has work to do on his project. His endless project. There is so much to do. Everyone else may be sleeping, but Schmid is wide awake.

He only rests for four hours every night – for two hours between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. and then again from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. Before then, in between naps and after he wakes up for good, whether night or day, Schmid can be found sitting in his office. On the wall hang three large clocks. One is for Zürich, where he lives. Another is for Beijing, because the Chinese love his art. And the last is for Phnom Penh, where his aid project is located. One could even say that the first two clocks are for his first life – homeland, success, fame. The third clock, though, ticks in time with his new life. The one that drives him today.

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.

Hannes Schmid
„Who is this guy? A photographer? Get him out of here!“

It’s not that Schmid needed to pursue aid for Cambodia to secure his legacy. His name is already a legend. When Barack Obama held a speech in 2009 to urge America to return to its fundamental values, a huge image of the Marlboro Man hung behind him. An American icon. The photograph was taken by Hannes Schmid.

Born in 1946, Schmid received formal training as an electrician and as a lighting technician but taught himself photography while in South Africa. He would go on trips and take picture after picture: first the African continent and then Asia. Schmid landed in Singapore and then flew onward into the jungle. Often, it was mere chance or passing acquaintances that propelled him from place to place. He photographed ancient tribes and orangutans and lived with cannibals. He was a totally normal madman: curious, clever, young and hungry for life.

Back in Germany, sick and exhausted, a friend dragged him to a concert. Schmid had been away for a long time and he found the music alienating, so raw and loud. And the fans, shaking their long hair. The friend also hauled him to dinner with the band at a bar. When the singer learned that Schmid was a photographer, he wanted to throw him out. But Schmid told his stories of the cannibals, of the jungle, of his world – and the singer was enthralled to the point that he offered Schmid the opportunity to photograph his band. The singer was Francis Rossi. The band was called Status Quo.

Between 1978 and 1984, Schmid went on the road with more than 250 bands. It was the era of rock: AC/DC, Queen, the Stones. Schmid was passed along from Marley to Nazareth, from Nina Hagen to ABBA, and once again, he was living out of a suitcase. He snorted tobacco next to the coke-sniffing Stones. He found the lifeless Bon Scott. Schmid took over 70,000 pictures, images that are, from today’s perspective, incredible. Schmid’s portrayals of the stars are unvarnished: bored in a hotel room, well-behaved at home, backstage with a cigarette and a beer. They are spontaneous shots, free of overreach or romanticization. One photograph shows Lemmy Kilmister, lead drinker and lead singer of Motörhead, with a huge zit on his nose. Schmid laughs until he’s hoarse when he turns to that page. “Lemmy always told me: ‘I’m the ugliest guy in the world in your pictures – but I love them.’”

At some point, though, it all became too much and Schmid left the music world behind. He had become bored with rock: sound check, concert, party; sound check, concert, party. “It was a brutal repetition,” he says today. Schmid’s fellow photographers would have killed to tour with the Stones or to roll a joint with Freddie Mercury. But for Schmid, the constant repetition became too much – and, for that reason, it wasn’t enough. He had never really been interested in music. In reality, there wasn’t a single genre of music that held his interest at all. If you ask Schmid what he listens to, he says: everything. It’s the answer of someone who is bored by music.

Hannes Schmid
„Hannes Schmid says that there is no such thing as a Hannes Schmid style.“

Schmid wanted to orchestrate reality, so he switched to fashion photography and had models climb up on elephants, or took them to Mt. Everest, or photographed them in front of the North Face of the Eiger. The industry, initially shocked by his style, soon began deluging him with jobs. His images seemed like documentary photography, but they had clearly been arranged. Schmid created the perfect illusion – and when he threatened to begin repeating himself, he embarked for new shores.

Hannes Schmid says that there is no such thing as a Hannes Schmid style. His favorite images became those of the Marlboro Man, the cowboy who rode, smoking, into the sunset. Everybody knows the campaign, which Schmid shot between 1993 and 2002. The Marlboro Man represents the American Dream, and he hangs everywhere in Schmid’s studio: on canvas, in oil, small, big. The Marlboro Man had the kind of radiance that ads today no longer do. Schmid had unlimited means at his disposal. It was also one of the last major campaigns during the era of brand fetishism.

But Schmid’s calender is still full. In the week we met with him, he was also expecting a Swiss television team in addition to investors and patrons, friends and colleagues, magazines and newspapers. Schmid, married to a woman from China and the father of two children, has plenty to keep him busy.

Soon, he will be flying back to Cambodia, which he visits once a month. His project needs the visits as a kind of moral support, but listening to Schmid, it becomes clear that he needs the project as well. Smiling Gecko administers a large piece of property outside of Phnom Penh with chicken farms, fish ponds and pig farming. Cambodian families that Schmid knows from his time living at the garbage dump now work and live here. They cultivate the fields, plant crops and bring in the harvest. Schmid built the kind of stilt-houses that are typical in the country and also established a school. Currently, textile factories are under construction. Schmid’s organization helps out the farmers for a few years and trains them. Ultimately, when he is certain that they can make it on their own, he intends to sign the land over to them.

Hannes Schmid
„The codger, the chaotic rebel, the one who dares to do what others shy away from.“

“It was clear to me that what I was doing had to have a commercial foundation,” he says. “People have to have their own money. They have to be able to buy things. Only then can it work.” Helping people help themselves is how people in the aid industry describe it and for Schmid, the approach has become his maxim. In contrast to celebrities who engage in charity only to put their own consciences at ease, Schmid is deeply involved in the fight. He doesn’t just lend his name to the cause, but also his heart. One is almost concerned about what might happen to him should Smiling Gecko fail. But it doesn’t look like it will.

Photographer Hannes Schmid has become a political creature, one who talks about the first world, the second world and the third world, about global trade, wasted funding and misguided aid. “I’m just a maniac with a vision. I’m allowed to ask stupid questions,” says Schmid. Is our arrangement still working? What about demography? Where is development heading? They are questions that he didn’t think about 20, 15, or even 10 years ago – the kind of questions that one only begins asking later in life. The difference, though, is that Schmid also finds answers and then acts on them. He develops ideas, visions and projects. It is the point at which the philosopher, who only thinks, returns to being the artist, who also must create.

In Cambodia, he applies lessons learned from previous projects, and he uses lessons from Cambodia in other projects he is currently involved in. But he is never completely finished with anything. If you imagine his life as a book, you would have to constantly be tearing pages out of one chapter and gluing them into another chapter. Schmid’s life is an encyclopedia, full of cross-references, footnotes and links, networked from the front to the back. The only constant is Schmid himself.

This approach means that Schmid has remained an outsider: the codger, the chaotic rebel, the one who dares to do what others shy away from. Essentially, Schmid has photographed everything that came later exactly as though he were still taking pictures of cannibals. That separates him from the masses of image producers who may do good, professional work, but who produce pictures that are all quite similar, even fearful. In an industry that works according to strict rules, Schmid remains the exception.

The area where Schmid’s studio and archive is located – northeast of the Zürich city center – is far from being Bohemian. It is located near the highway and is surrounded by concrete blocks and residential high-rises. A swimming pool here, a school there. But if you wander past in the nighttime, you’ll see a light still burning – in the first floor above the garage. Inside, Hannes Schmid will still be awake.

Hannes Schmid