Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
A project by the Swiss city captures the diversity of its residents in beautiful, candid photos.
Few outsiders would think of Geneva, the lakeside city of watchmakers and banks, as an immigrant nexus. On the contrary, Switzerland—and by extension its cities—is often held up as a quintessential small and homogenous European state, an impression bolstered by a national referendum in 2009 prohibiting the construction of new minarets, and another, last year, establishing immigration quotas for all types of migrants.
Geneva opposed both these measures, and no wonder why: Three in five residents of the canton, which is enveloped on three sides by France, are first or second-generation immigrants. The United Nations has its second-largest office in the city and the Red Cross is headquartered there; 48 percent of residents are foreign nationals, putting Geneva (pop. 189,000) in the same category as international metropolises like Toronto and New York.
It’s a story that the Swiss city has lately begun to translate into photos, maps and testimonials. In an online gallery called
Genève, sa gueule (which could be loosely translated as “Geneva, in your face”), the city has assembled more than 700 miniature profiles of residents of all ages, many of which include short statements about life in the city. A map plots each person’s family history (to his or her parents and grandparents) across the world, or in some cases, just across town.
It is the brainchild of Ninian Hubert van Blyenburgh, an anthropologist and museum director turned municipal project manager. Asked to come up with something for the annual European “Week Against Racism” last year, van Blyenburgh began a series of experiments in which Genevans were asked to relay their origin stories to the public.
The first event took place in March 2014; these days, a photographer regularly sets up shop at a local festival or street fair, along with brief questionnaires for Genevans who decide to take part.
“The project has become popular,” van Blyenburgh tells me. “So you have people coming expressly to have their photo taken, and the reaction’s been very positive, because people get exactly what it’s about: It’s about Geneva being inhabited by people from all over, each of whom took a totally different path.”
At one point, the city unfurled a giant map so that residents could literally trace their paths. In March, Genève sa gueule had an old-fashioned opening, inviting everyone who had taken part. But to a large extent, the project resides online. In the vein of Humans of New York, it makes the case that a website can serve as a kind of civic space.
“Geneva is a very, very international city,” says Aran, a doctoral student in mathematics from Iran who moved here last year, and was photographed during a recent street fair. (He asked that his last name not be published.) “But you always have a kind of feeling that the internationals are interacting with each other, and the locals are interacting with each other.”
In the space of Genève sa gueule, at least, those distinctions vanish. The collection of faces is suspiciously diverse, like a casting call for Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video. But it’s not planned—it just reflects the urge to participate, and perhaps the desire to get a headshot-worthy snap for Facebook. (Profile pictures are a great advertisement for the project, van Blyenburgh notes.)
It’s typical for Swiss cantons to have official integration policies, but this, clearly, is something different. “We don’t use that word because we don’t like it very much,” van Blyenburgh explains. “What does it mean to integrate? Do foreigners have to become Swiss? What does it mean to be Swiss? There is real tension on this issue in Switzerland, as in the rest of Europe.” This has been especially true this summer, as the largest migration since World War II reshapes the population of the continent.
But the goal is less to promote diversity, van Blyenburgh says, than to acknowledge it. “It’s not about diversity as something positive, necessarily, but as something ordinary.” If the project puts forth a quiet argument for a polyglot European future, it does so simply by showing the Genevan present.