Arnold Odermatt's Photographs Lift the Curtain on Problematic Policing
The mid-century Swiss photographer's images struggle with an inability to represent contact between law enforcement and people.
Stans (detail), 1964. (c) Urs Odermatt, Windisch
Turning a camera on law enforcement is often a radical act, illuminating patterns of violence and brutality enacted by police officers on BIPOC communities across the globe. Over the past month, documentation of the murder of George Floyd by three Minneapolis police officers has sparked massive protests and renewed cries to abolish the police. The perpetuation of violent policing depends on the anonymity and invisibility of officers, a veil of protection for what sociologist Alex Vitale calls “the point of contact between the coercive state and its citizens.” Photography and video by civilians have long served as unofficial checks on the criminal justice system: to this end, Swiss photographer and ex-policeman Arnold Odermatt is both exception and example. The artist had no formal training and served on the police force of rural Swiss canton Nidwalden for over 40 years before his retirement in 1991. Curator Harald Szeeman saw a show of 30 photographs at a Frankfurt police department event in 1998—Odermatt debuted at the Venice Biennale just three years later. His images provide a glimpse into the artifice and violence of law enforcement, both replicating and destabilizing an aesthetics of policing dependent on power and conformity.
German publishing house Steidl collected Odermatt’s work for local law enforcement in 2016’s Im Dienst (“On Duty” in English) . The bulk of the images are the result of a curious problem faced by the department in the 1960s and ‘70s: Swiss youth were declining to join the force and work the beat, and aging officers were quickly transitioning into retirement. This was no accident: in the 1960s, a strong leftist movement in Switzerland coupled with a global focus on police brutality to push for reform, culminated in the Globus Riots of June 1968. Zurich protesters established an autonomous city center before Swiss polizei used violent crowd dispersion tactics, seriously injuring 41 civilians (sound familiar?). A young Odermatt was tasked with curating a campaign that could be used to recruit young people into the unpopular profession. His fellow officers were put in full uniform, hairs cut and beards shorn, and whisked into a photo shoot with Odermatt that would be comical if it were not so darkly familiar. The resulting images are as disturbing as they are relevant: on display is a performative fantasy of what it means to police, from midcentury Switzerland to contemporary America.
Odermatt’s compositional choices illuminate the image of policing most enticing to the officers themselves, forming a diorama of uniformity, artifice, and extreme threat. In one photograph, a row of police officers stands in a carefully arranged line on a picturesque dirt road draped with greenery, each with a foot placed carefully behind the next, pointing a small handgun at an off-screen target. A fence skates down the left-hand side of the image, so that the group appears to be aiming, strangely, right into the chain-link not more than a few feet in front of them. This fairytale firing squad fails even in its most idealized form: whatever target the viewer is intended to imagine is clumsily constructed, interrupted by basic infrastructure. Odermatt’s images from this series are full of contrived stances and squinted faces meant to signify a belabored allegiance to the enforcement of law. It’s not surprising that policemen make terrible actors: their dramaturge is a criminal justice system that confuses punitive social control for community empowerment. Odermatt’s models need Stanislavski, not Spielberg. Their awkwardness under the lens reveals the shaky foundations on which policing is built, the vast divide between displays of power and acts of public service. What becomes apparent through the images is an inability to represent policing in a way that does not rely on performances of violence, be they symbolic or actual.
The menace of Odermatt’s law enforcement does not have a visible object: the officers appear as if in a dream, left to assert themselves over vacant Swiss landscapes. Police officers are often the only figures pictured in Odermatt’s images, usually among the wreckage of car crashes. The 2003 collection Karambolage (“Smash-up” in English) features numerous scenes that trace the looping paths of motorcycles, bicycles, and Volkswagens before their accidents, with all victims conspicuously missing. In one ominous image, a 1970s Beetle collides head-on with Porsche on a highway. An officer has traced the outline of each vehicle’s skid marks in chalk on the black pavement, from the beginning of the accident to their wreckage, which is severe. Not a single person occupies the image, though traces abound. The same is true of the recruitment scenes: though the demonstration of power remains at the fore, the citizens upon whom violence and threat are exercised remain physically invisible. The resulting photographs are a fantasy of the familiar: they imagine dominance without subjugation, violence without victims. Odermatt’s images serve both to replicate an aesthetic structure of policing dependent on the absence of civilians and to reveal it for what it is—impossible.
Odermatt’s images struggle with an inability to represent contact between law enforcement and people. What emerges from the photographs is the notion that the ideal police force can only exist without a populace. As calls for abolition increase, it is clear that for many, the reverse is equally true: the populace can only exist (live, flourish) without a police force. In Buochs (1965), two policemen steer a motorboat across Lake Nidwalden, Switzerland, posing as though caught in mid-conversation. Framed in the rearview mirror is Odermatt, holding up his camera. Odermatt, wittingly or unwittingly, contradicts the ubiquitous phrase uttered from cop to bystander: Nothing to see here, move along. Odermatt says the opposite: don’t move, at least, not as long as there is a whole lot to be seen here.
- arnold odermatt