Switzerland has been recently discussed extensively at international level. Political and social choices have created a media coverage, especially in relation to the popular vote of last February relevant to mass migration, which caused many difficulties in managing the relations with the European Union.
The external gaze on Switzerland at this moment in history is more critical and curious than in recent years, yet in the popular imagination a stereotypical established depiction persists, to which a sense of closure and protectionism is possibly added, dictated in fact by the recent positions taken by the people.
Igor Ponti’s (b. 1981) project is inserted in this rigid system of cultural and national definition as a brave element of questioning, with a definitely explanatory title: “Looking for Identity” published by Hatje Cantz.
A search of identity personally required by the author himself, who began this project five years ago simply for personal reasons:
“I wanted to leave Switzerland. To migrate, to reach those urban centers that I thought could allow me to gain a deeper cultural, creative and working development. But at that time the question that I asked myself was “from what do I go away?”.
I became aware that I did not know exactly what I would have left.
I slightly inspected where I came from, what does it mean to be a Swiss or a citizen from Ticino, what bounded me to this land”.
A definition of yourself through the land. Before an analysis linked to political movements, before cliché, almost before the very idea of nation and state.
To strip off from the preconceived imagery that binds to a place and also to avoid the exact opposite, that is a kind of stupor, Igor Ponti completed the first two journeys through Switzerland, a stage that he defined as a “prologue”, in order to cover a more objective view of what he later shot.
From this preparatory phase, some subjects and specific elements to be found in order to represent a search for identity were afterward defined, clearly leaving freedom of action to the fate and to the situation.
At this point the real journeys began, where the pictures that we find in “Looking for Identity” were taken. Images taken with a view camera, format 20×25 cm, which is a permanent feature
for Ponti: “I need to be able to see the picture as a whole. How the proportions work. But above all, it is a format that implies slowness. It is a procedure where you have to stop, choose carefully the views. Place the tripod, assemble the camera, choose the perspective. It is an exercise of observation, of gaze. It is a ritual that also reflects my personality: to shoot under a cloth, closed inside it, reflecting and talking to myself, and reasoning out loud.”
The images collected by Igor Ponti have the ability to show the everyday – of the people and especially of the places – without having to resort to the picture of the activities or tasks that mark a day and are therefore more easily placed under the label of “traditions”. Of course some typically Swiss elements, which are related to customs and traditions or eating habits, appear, but they are shown in the book just as objects or entities normally present in the territory, which later became distinctive at the international level. Most of the shots actually return a land that could be described as a panorama of passage, of transit.
Some pictures would never even remind you of Switzerland. In any case, the places are mainly the protagonists of “Looking for Identity”: “In this project, I focused on the land, but I also included some portraits. I like to relate with people when I photograph them, and then all those being there have a reason to be a part of the project. The best example is Elvezio. The name of a person which is also the name of a territory. A strong demonstration of belonging to a land.” And it is the picture of Elvezio which is used as the cover to the book. Furthermore Igor: “If in the project there is especially land and landscape is because I believe that as human beings, as a human race, when we settle in one place, we build something and what we build reflects who we are. The land is an enlarged view of our identity. This is also why we have a certain type of construction that is different from the one in the German-speaking or French speaking Switzerland.”
In Igor Ponti’s project, in fact, we must also consider this: it is being sought to search for the identity of a country that consists of multiple cultural identities derived from neighboring countries. Influences from Italy, France, Germany, beyond the obvious language issue, are clear and undeniable. The author of the search is furthermore part of a cultural and political minority, in other words he comes from Ticino, from the Italian Switzerland. “In Ticino, it most often happened to find anonymous places. I do not know if it’s because we had a land management which is different from that of other cantons. Let’s say that many cantons have preserved more their identity construction which is linked to the past. In fact, in central Switzerland the risk of making a “postcard” photo was constant. In Ticino is more difficult to fall into a stereotypical image because there are several landscapes. You easily pass from a metropolitan view, for example looking at Lugano, to very mountainous situations, just at short distance from the city. But taking pictures of where you live is the hardest thing to do. Your eye is so inured and accustomed to what’s around you that you need a big effort to have the ability to alienate and reflect on what you have in front of you. It is an exercise you have to do, you have to impose it to yourself ”.
Among the differences that Switzerland has within it, Igor Ponti’s eye has a both internal and external virtue, but in any case he always aimed to seek for an investigative and interrogative gaze, respecting the truth of the places as much as possible. A country that revealed itself as equally honest, in five years, a long enough period of time to establish both continuity and breeches: “I saw a real Switzerland, I met real people, even those that I have not photographed or even those who at the end I have not included in the final work, they all gave me something.
I did not perform this work in order to quantify or define the current state of affairs in the country.
I rather have an open conclusion that makes me think that there is no a real Swiss common identity, because each language region of the country is different. There is the Swiss identity based on the experiences that you can pick up in the land where you live. There is a sense of belonging, but I think it’s innate wherever you grow. The belonging not only to a nation, but to a land.”