Niels Ackermann: "Switzerland makes it possible for me to live this life"
Niels Ackermann is hands down Swiss photographer of the year. Meeting with a 30-year-old who manages his career with insight and a taste for life.
The latest news is that Niels Ackermann was on assignment for the New York Times in the Val de Travers – a mandate he fitted in between flights, given that his work 'The White Angel' recently featured in eight exhibitions in locations ranging from Morges (canton of Vaud), the prestigious International Festival of Photojournalism, 'Visa pour l'Image' in Perpignan (France) where he won the Ville de Perpignan Rémi Ochlik Award, through to China. The Genevan's White Angel was welcomed earlier this year by the Swiss Press Photo and Swiss Photo Awards, and picked up by CNN and the New York Times' photojournalism blog Lens.
Barely 30 years old, Ackermann called this success "crazy and unexpected, far beyond anything I could have dared imagine." Although 2016 marks a year of major successes for the young photojournalist, deep down he holds dear the little known Globetrotter World Photo award which he received at the end of 2013 and represents a turning point in his career. This award presented by the Bernese travel agency also includes thorough coaching by Manuel Bauer, famous for his intimate portraits of the Dalai Lama. "Manuel got me to dream big. He encouraged me to be more autonomous and devote more time to my long-term projects," says Ackermann.
An excuse to explore the world
The awards are of course welcome, but the Genevan refuses to stop there. Ackermann puts any prize money and 'special income' to the side. He lives primarily off his assignments, such as those mandated by the City of Geneva or private companies. "I haven't tried living from press assignments for several years."
The G8 summit in Évian-les-Bains, which rocked Geneva in 2003, was the first event that the self-proclaimed geek, who was studying economics and the social sciences, photographed. "It fascinated me. Since then, photography has been partly an excuse to go and see how things happen." At the beginning, Ackermann was mainly inspired by paintings – even if the names of the photographers who feature on the cover page of the l'Hebdo magazine (Jean Révillard, Nicolas Righetti and Fred Merz) had him "fantasising". He went on to join them at the Rezo agency. Since then, "the economic context changed enormously" and in 2015 Ackermann co-founded a new collective, Lundi13, with other Rezo former members. Among his peers today, Ackermann admires Guillaume Herbaut of France and the Ukrainians Boris Mikhailov and Sergey Lebedinsky.
Ukraine – a long-standing dream
A little less than three years ago, Ackermann and his Ukrainian girlfriend decided to leave Geneva and hesitated between German-speaking Switzerland and Ukraine. They opted for the latter. People later said that Ackermann had good intuition, seeing that on the eve of 2014 Kyiv and its Maidan Square were shaken by clashes that eventually led to the overthrow of the president. He lets out a faint smile. "I was stuck in Switzerland for the bulk of the revolution. And then photographers from all over the world started landing there, and that's really not my thing. When I started working on Slavutych, I didn't think that a lot of people would be interested." Ackermann also points out that his photos are anything but militant. "It's the Swiss side of me," he laughs. "The world isn't black and white. I still can't say that I'm against nuclear power, even today."
Ukraine is now the country where Ackermann lives most of the time, returning regularly to Switzerland to complete his assignments. For now, he will continue to follow developments in Slavutych and among its inhabitants. And he is already immersed in a new project, 'After Lenin', which documents the fate of thousands of statues of Lenin that have been dismantled, stolen or melted down.
This does not mean that Ackermann has turned his back on his home country. "A lot of fascinating things are happening here too. I left to break new ground, and because there aren't really any surprises when you know a place well. But now, when I return to Switzerland I find that I know Geneva less and less." Ackermann is also toying with the idea of working on International Geneva. But he doesn't want to give more information. Yet.
The White Angel/The children of Chernobyl have grown up
'The White Angel/The children of Chernobyl have grown up' documents the life of Yulia, a teenage girl from Slavutych, as she transforms into a young adult. Thirty kilometres from the centre of Chernobyl, the town was built in the wake of the 1986 disaster. The images, bursting with life and colour, contrast with the pessimistic vision that has been conveyed to the area for years. A book has been published by Les Editions Noir sur Blanc with a text written by Swiss journalist Gaetan Vannay.