A Visual Examination of Switzerland’s National Security Apparatus

Salvatore Vitale – recipient of the PHmuseum 2017 Photography Grant – has turned his award-winning series How to Secure a Country into a wide-ranging photobook that takes a detailed look at the security systems in one of the safest countries in the world: Switzerland.

© Salvatore Vitale, spread from the book How to Secure a Country

In 2018, a survey in Switzerland centred around security showed that Swiss population generally feels very safe. And for good reason – their homeland is spending billions of dollars every year on security, making it a business as much as a political motivation. But what are the threats that they feel secure from? How does this multi-layered apparatus function? With what goals? For four years, Italian photographer Salvatore Vitale partnered with public and private institutions involved in the Swiss security system in order to study it from the inside.

The resulting photobook, recently published by Lars Müller, comprises a variety of visual forms – photographs, diagrams, and graphical illustrations - and a mind-boggling number of ramifications. Far from being restricted to military affairs, security manifests itself in areas as diverse as climate change, migration, insurance and the ever-expanding cyber-sphere. Security is at the centre of political agendas, but also, on a citizen scale, a social and psychological conditioner. We may as well say that it shapes the world.

© Salvatore Vitale, spread from the book How to Secure a Country

More security inevitably means more surveillance, which, as political sociology researcher Jonas Hagmann points in the book, means a danger of suffocating everyday life. A question thus overshadows Vitale’s survey - how much freedom are we as citizens willing to give up for security? The photographer never judges. Because, as Hagmann notes, “a look inside the field of national security shows that neither the definition of “problems” nor the ways of approaching them are certain to professionals themselves.” Vitale thus shows, visualises, the often invisible. By doing so, he raises questions about what curator Lars Willumeit, in a long essay discussing statehood, calls “both a need and a billion dollar business”.

Using the same medium as his subject, Vitale covers the visual strategies of emulation, simulation, and dissimulation used by the security industry. He complements them with a subtle, yet expressive, visual language. Shot in close-ups, he portrays hands grasping, searching, controlling, themselves secured by plastic gloves. Later, he depicts open mountainscapes, walls of the Swiss fortress whose sky we imagine crisscrossed with mechanic birds. And when they are not hiding a bunker, the bucolic landscapes serve as a postcard background for the quote “hyper security for a changing world”.

© Salvatore Vitale, spread from the book How to Secure a Country

Indoors, it’s a world of 30-ton doors, robots, and cameras photographed typologically, to the extent of flirting with fiction. Fragments of shorn shoes under a golden rescue blanket stained with an ambiguous red drop. The bright yellow background gives it a surreal aspect. Surreal, too, the photographs put together in different light paper quires throughout the book – images that “aims to explore the visual world through which various public institutions use to present or promote their activities in relation to the Swiss security complex.” For all of them, he painted elements in red – red as blood, as a reminder of the purpose of security itself.

As Roland Bleiker beautifully concludes: “The power and critique of Vitale’s photographs lie in their ability to show us that security has as much to do with our imagination as it has with actual security: as much as about being safe, it is about feeling safe, as individuals and as a nation.”

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How to Secure a Country by Salvatore Vitale

Published in 2019 by Lars Müller Publishers // Edited by Salvatore Vitale and Lars Willumeit

Essays by Roland Bleiker, Philip Di Salvo, Jonas Hagmann, Lars Willumeit

Designed by Offshore Studio

Hardback // 280 pages, 209 illustrations // 21 x 27 cm // €35

BUY HERE

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Salvatore Vitale is an Italian visual artist and editor. He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of YET Magazine, a Swiss-based international photography magazine that focuses on the evolution of photography practice within the contemporary art field. His series How to Secure a Country won the PHmuseum 2017 Photography Grant. Find him on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.

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