Smiling Gecko

Geckoes – lizards inhabiting all regions of the world, symbolizing supernatural powers and primordial energies as well as perfect adaptability, reincarnation and renewal in harmony and beauty –, these reptiles lend their name to a charitable association in Cambodia. In combination with the prefixed adjective “smiling,” the name programmatically stands for the association’s humanitarian engagement in one of the poorest countries on this planet, plagued with low life expectancy and high infant mortality rates.
Founded by the Swiss photo artist Hannes Schmid and the lawyer Dominique Ruetimann, this association is dedicated to helping people living in slums, particularly begging children and orphans. This is mostly done by providing the means for housing, schooling, job training, and basic health care as well as by offering reconstructive surgeries to those who have been disfigured due to their exposure to a dangerous living environment.
The present publication contains photographs by Hannes Schmid and constitutes an artistic statement about this humanitarian engagement. It appears on the occasion of an exhibition of his works in Zurich, which allows viewers a glimpse of the daily life in an often forgotten region of South- East Asia, a situation marked by the impoverishment of people in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville: half-naked and dirty children on garbage dumps, women and men in barracks, faces and bodies marred by acid attacks, diseases, or accidents. The photographs are kept in an authenticating black and white mode and imprint the mishap and misery of the people inhabiting this disadvantaged social stratum on the global socio-cultural memory.
Schmid unpolemically captures the everyday life of these people either in photographs which assign an iconic status to singular moments in time or in what can be described as single-frame photographic narratives. Either way, the photographs restore the faces of the people in both a real and figurative sense. Granting grace and respect, the images instill ugliness with beauty. These are photographs of an artist whose understanding of art combines economic, political, and ethical dimensions. In so doing, Schmid stands in the tradition of socio-documentary photography which has evolved in England and America since the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. They wanted to document the miserable living conditions of an urban lower class which resulted from an overheated industrialization and capitalism unchecked by social institutions. Presently, internationally renowned photographers such as Manuel Rivera-Ortiz or Sebastião Salgado continue in the tradition of what ever since the 1960s has become referred to as concerned photography. This explicitly socio-critical approach likewise constitutes a longer artistic tradition in Switzerland, where humanistic photographers like Werner Bischof, not least through his affiliation with the world-famous agency Magnum, and Paul Senn attained great acclaim in the twentieth century. Hannes Schmid, in contrast to some of his predecessors and competitors, does not limit himself to artistic concernment, empathy, or documentation.
As a concerned photographer, he has for years been doing humanitarian work on spot as an artist as well as a founding member of his association, both as – and in the sense of – a “Smiling Gecko.”

Kornelia Imesch