New Bern resembles many other small towns in the United States: children play on neatly trimmed suburban lawns, the community comes together at church services, some people collect guns, the military are praised for their heroism, and drug dealers plague the poor neighborhoods. Our Town, published by Steidl, plunges us into an ordinary day-to-day life. Yet, as Michael von Graffenried’s panoramic images unfold, we are overcome with a strange impression: the city of 30,000 inhabitants is more than 30% black, but the pictures show very little diversity.
“Whites and Blacks have their own churches, restaurants, and so on,” explained the Swiss photographer. “The only place where they are forced to mix is in high school.” Between 2006 and 2020, Michael von Graffenried got to know this community which lives primarily off two nearby marine bases and tourism. To understand what brought him to New Bern, you have to go back to 1710, when the town was founded by a Bern native named… Christoph von Graffenried. Almost 300 years later, the family link between the founder of New Bern, NC, and the photographer, born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1957, sparked interest in the Swiss Roots organization as part of a campaign to show Americans that Switzerland is not just a country of bank secrecy and the controversies surrounding it. “At first, I declined. I didn’t want to mix these family stories with my work. Then I realized that this could serve as a key to exploring what was going on in George W. Bush’s America, which was so decried back home at the time.”
Michael von Graffenried made four trips in two years with the guarantee of complete creative freedom. In 2007, at the opening of the exhibition unveiling the fruits of his work to the residents, the photographer realized that the audience, mostly white, did not appreciate what he showed of their city. “They had thought my images would help to ‘sell’ their city. But I was only showing the reality,” said Michael von Graffenried. “I photograph what is in plain sight, but people tend to overlook what they don’t want to see. My photos were labeled racist. For two months, they were the center of a controversy in the local newspaper … without ever being published because they were not ‘suitable for family viewing’!” Von Graffendried then decided to continue the project and to delve even deeper into New Bern, NC.
“I realized there were in fact two towns. I had to make my way into the African American half.” One Sunday, he went to one of the black churches. Being the only white person in the congregation, his presence was noticed. “The priest came to talk to me and then, during the service, called me up to the front to explain my project. I told them about my work, how I had been photographing the town for two years, but that I didn’t think I had seen everything. At that moment, they started to smile, they knew what I meant.” Whether in America, Europe, or Africa, Michael von Graffenried’s work shows without pretense or affectation those who are overlooked and their daily lives. The African American New Bern was finally opened up by Taurance, a debonair giant. The man is a pillar of the community, known to all as a coach, social worker, and guidance counselor to troubled youth whom poverty sometimes pushes toward crime and drugs. Michael von Graffenried crisscrossed the city with Taurance during his many visits.
In 2020, the publication project was taking shape. To finalize it, Michael von Graffenried managed to obtain a visa allowing him to travel despite Covid restrictions. In October, three weeks before the end of the elections, he found a changed Taurance. “I felt he was more confident, less reserved, as if he had been liberated.” The Swiss photographer attributes this transformation to the wave of Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. “This has set New Bern astir,” Michael von Graffenried said enthusiastically. “For the first time, people started talking about issues that used to be swept under the rug. For the first time since the town’s founding, there was a demonstration! More than 300 people attended, which, for a population of 30,000, is huge!”
It’s still too early to tell if this will have any profound effect, but the photographer hopes his photos can help some people finally see what’s going on in their own town, as in so many others in the United States and elsewhere. Michael von Graffenried stakes this epiphany solely on the power of his images. Apart from a brief introduction, Our Town has no text, nothing that could distract from the photographs. New Bern, NC, may appear divided, but there is also something very universal about it, a deep humanity with accents of hope.
By Laure Etienne
Laure Etienne is a Paris-based journalist and former member of the editorial team at Polka and ARTE.
Michael von Graffenried, Our Town, Steidl, €45, 240 pp.
Book signing on May 19 & 20, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Espace MVG at the Esther Woerdehoff Gallery, 36, rue Falguière, 75015 Paris