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Roland Schneider: Zwischenzeit

Every now and then I'm revisiting some of the photography books and other items on my shelves here. This time it’s . . .

Fron cover of Worktown People by the photographer Humphrey Spender

In the history of photography there has been a long and often uncomfortable tradition of work from the margins of society. Their subject is the 'other', often people experiencing poverty, drug addiction, suffering and mental illness.  The images tend to be dramatic and visually appealing to a certain audience while the photographer is almost always an outsider with no connection to the subject, using the camera to reveal ‘truth’ under the guise of concerned photography. 

You see it less these days. The idea has been confuted over the years, not least by writers like Susan Sontag as well as by photographers themselves, acknowledging the subjective nature of their work, questioning their motives and their ability to reveal anything certain in situations that are often complex, foreign and beyond their understanding. 

At first glance Roland Schneider’s book, Zwischenzeit, appears to fall within that ‘uncomfortable’ category. Shot in the late 1980s at a psychiatric hospital in Switzerland it contains gritty, black and white images of patients in various states of confusion, distress and boredom. Schneider, however, was not an outsider, he was himself a patient in the hospital, entering there in 1987 after suffering a personal breakdown. Doctors recognised that, as a professional photographer, he might document his new environment as a way of finding meaning in the things around him, using photography as a therapy to help understand his mental state and eventually emerge from the illness.


The photographs were exhibited in the hospital after his release and then published as Zwischenzeit ('between-time') in 1988.  The book contains about 100 images, each one accompanied by a caption. My copy is in German so I’ve had to translate it. The captions are more important than they first appear, offering a window to the meanings and associations Schneider was making as he photographed the things and the people around him: door handles that become worlds of night and day, the folds of a towel that form a snowy mountain range,  scars and cracks that talk of damaged minds, windows and radios connecting to the outside world, human bodies that seem to float through their particular version of space and time. Schneider is aware of the ethical concerns around photographing in a place like this. Identities are mostly hidden and names are changed. And he questions his right to take pictures of fellow patients, acknowledging the confrontations when they occur. .

The hospital is an enclosed environment. Recognising certain places and people on different pages in the book you become aware of how much the photographer was confined within that space, searching for meaning in the details and repetitions of daily life. 

For me what’s interesting about Zwischenzeit is that he didn’t go out to make the photographs for an audience. He made them for himself, and he made them as an insider rather than an outsider. It can still feel uncomfortable and voyeuristic to turn the pages even if Schneider’s position as subject helps to break down the sense of ‘otherness’. It is a series that works best when viewed as a whole. At times intimate, at times haunting, the effect is a recognition of similarity as much as difference: that certain human needs and certain levels of sanity or insanity exist within us all. 

Ultimately, whatever we understand from these images will be different to what Schneider understood from making them. And that’s the thing that stays with me most.

Roland Schneider, Zwischenzeit. Published by Der Alltag, 1988


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