Interview: Photographer Hannes Schmid on the Smiling Gecko Project
"Swiss artist Hannes Schmid (born 1946 in Zurich) has been establishing a relevant body of work since the early 1970s. Schmid started his career with travel reports. For many years he worked as an advertising and fashion photographer. His re-creation of the Marlboro Man, mostly created in the 1990s, has become an iconic figure known all over the world and has been even appropriated by conceptual artists."
Interviewer Mark Gelband (@markgelband) is Ello’s Chief Marketing Officer, an expert in container home construction, a long-time writer, and a local everywhere he goes.
Learn more about the Smiling Gecko Artist Invite and submit your work for a chance to travel to Cambodia and portray the work of the organization through the eyes of an artist.
In a 1992 NY Times review of the fourth International Festival of Fashion Photography in Monaco, journalist Suzy Menkes notes your work as “fashion with portraits of American Indian life,” and states: “HANNES Schmid of Switzerland made an impassioned plea for photographers to reflect social and political issues.” 25 years later and this impassioned plea for artists to reflect social and political issues seems more relevant than ever. Can you comment on that?
We live in an intensely intertwined environment today. With social media playing an ever-increasing role in our understanding of social and political issues, even far more than conventional media channels, it is more important and relevant for artists to reflect global issues and change mindsets and bring about awareness of issues which might be sensitive or of non-priority due to certain confining reasons. The power of artists lies in that they do not limit themselves to fit certain agendas or fulfill a certain role, thus allowing them to draw attention to the most sensitive or needing issue in societies.
From Schmid's "The Flow of Life" Series
You’ve been successful in your career both commercially and as “artist.” When working commercially – getting paid by brands – what are some of the ways you’ve been able to reflect social and political issues?
I often choose the theme and how I portray my works even if they are commercial in nature. For example, when I shot a fashion spread for IO Donna in the late 90s, I decided to focus on the theme of environmental preservation. In particular, drawing attention to the national park which saves orangutans, and also the illegal mining issue in the primary rainforest and how that is affecting the community there.
Smiling Gecko – first seems to about people – and how helping build a community that empowers all of its members, can make the greatest social and political comment. How does the work at Smiling Gecko transcend the village itself?
Contrary to most conventional NGOs, Smiling Gecko pursues a holistic approach with the cluster project, which leads to a sustainable improvement of the living conditions within a community. From the beginning, the vision was to expand Smiling Gecko as a holistic cluster project. Since then, many areas of work and training could be created in agriculture, tourism, crafts, and schooling. In the next few years, many additional projects in industry and crafts will follow. Due to the economic orientation of the cluster projects, they are self-supporting and can finance the school and thus the education of the children. This creates an exemplary model of a functioning, rural community, which provides education, decent work and sustainable income to the people.
The Smiling Gecko project not only supports its own village but also thousands of people in the region who will benefit from this. The Smiling Gecko Principle is ultimately transferable to other regions and communities.
Why Cambodia? What is special about your time there that rooted your sense of community?
On a trip to Thailand, I met a young Cambodian girl who had been cruelly mutilated by her parents and then sold to a Thai begging syndicate. I have tried to help her and with that, I became acquainted with the misery in the slums and on the dumpsters of Phnom Penh. I have lived in the slums, experiencing the kindness and courage of the people. I was especially impressed by how little people were discouraged by war and genocide, and how much they were anxious to take their fate back into their own hands. Since then, I am totally engaged and try to improve the living conditions of the people with the help of Smiling Gecko.
Through the Eyes of the Artist feels like it lands on the continuum of this notion of reflecting social and political issues - as if challenging the artists and others to look at Smiling Gecko in new and unique ways the sense of community can be translated into a different language. What three line story do you want to come from this project?
This is a story of humanity in its best glow, how each thought, each motion, each giving reflect our love and compassion towards one another. Despite our differences in how we see the world and her issues, the ultimate result is a synergy of work which brings change, a positive change in lives of people. Change is inevitable, together we can choose how we look at issues and their solutions.
How did the collaboration between Boldomatic, Ello and Hannes Schmid come about?
I met Steffen Schietinger of boldomatic after one of my lectures. He was deeply impressed by the project Smiling Gecko and our work in Cambodia and he spontaneously considered together with Mark Gelband from Ello and how they could support us. We are very grateful that they have developed together, the ARTISTS FOR SMILING GECKO project, which raises a lot of awareness for our concern in Cambodia. With this great Pro Bono support of both Steffen and Mark, I gladly took over the patronage. With the help of sponsors, we enable some artists to get impressions on the scene and to process their impressions in an artistic way. The resulting works will be shown during my special exhibition at the Liechtenstein State Museum in Vaduz and help to attract attention to this important project. By the way, we are still looking for other sponsors to enable artists to travel to Cambodia.
Submit your work to Through The Eyes Of The Artist and learn more about Hannes Schmid.