In Conversation: Reto Fürst

Reto Fürst is a Swiss photographer who started taking photographs “a couple of years ago”. As a child, he loved to draw but somehow felt he never had the necessary skills or talent. Photography, he tells us, is derived from the Greek words φωτός (phōtos) and γραφή (graphé) and can be translated into ‘drawing with lights’. He believes he never really stopped drawing but rather replaced the pen with a camera. 

J.J. Marsh first encountered Reto’s work as a fellow dog-lover. She asks him about the art of catching animals with a lens.

Your photographs fit the theme of Snowflake perfectly. They seem to reflect nature: powerful and beautiful, yet fragile. Is that your aim?              

I’m happy you’re asking this question because my aim as a wildlife photographer is to raise awareness about the beauty of nature. There is so much beauty around us; it’s on us to see it. In Switzerland there is always a discussion around killing more wildlife, but I think we should feel very lucky we still have wild animals. We need to find a way to live together with them. They were here before us and we are the intruders in their territory— which also reflects back to the topic of snowflake. They are delicate animals, they need a refuge to rest, especially during mating and breeding season. They need peace and shelter. We have to understand that and support it.

No one looking at your work can fail to be impressed by your timing. This must be the result of a great deal of patience.

Yes, 100%. I use a quote from Leo Tolstoy: “The strongest of all warriors are these two: Time and Patience.” If you look at a picture, you see a moment in time. But if you look at the work in the background, that’s a different story. I need to read up a lot about the animals to understand at what point in time certain things will happen. I need to understand how animals feel and think. The other thing is, I need to be there and wait. Things will always happen, but you cannot control it. That’s one of the beautiful aspects. You can have as much money as you want, but you still cannot control nature and action.

I’m a very restless person, I always need to do things and be in motion. But wildlife photography has calmed me down. I can sit for five hours in front of a woodpecker hole, camouflaged, waiting until something happens. I can lose time, I don’t feel bored—that’s something these creatures have taught me. Be still and wait for the moment. Sometimes I go home frustrated, but mostly, it’s about enjoying yourself when you’re out there.

Raccoon by Reto Fürst

Some of your most exceptional photographs include wings. What intrigues you about wings?  

Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated by nature. I loved to collect frogs and reptiles. I loved dogs and all kinds of animals. But I was never into birds. In my first 35 years, I’d never seen a woodpecker. Now I know how they sound and where they are, I see ten every time I’m in the forest.

Wings. It all started when I took a picture of a gull in flight. Its wings were in a very specific position. That drew my attention and I started to take more pictures of birds and wings. Deep inside, I envy these animals and their freedom. They can go anywhere; they’re not bound to anything. Sometimes I see buzzards taking off from a tree and two seconds later they’re half a mile away, riding on the wind without a single wing flap—they just soar. Humanity was always fascinated by flying and so am I. It’s not like I want to become a pilot or anything, more that I want to break out of my routine and be free, like the birds.

Common Terns by Reto Fürst

Human beings, like snowflakes, seem so vulnerable as single entities, but in numbers, their power is extraordinaryas a force for harm and for good. Do you think we could harness that power to protect the natural world?

Difficult question. I would think so, yes. If we all could understand that we cannot consume the resources we currently consume—and realise the sole way of protecting the planet is by taking care of what’s around us—we could make a huge move towards a better world. A lot of people have started waking up, and I see more and more people growing aware of what we need to do. But a lot of people are running in the other direction. These extremes are getting further apart and will get worse in the future.

Speaking of flocks of animals, I read a book about ravens. The corvid family consists of around 120 species, including crows, jays and so on. These are one of the most intelligent creatures.

I’ve seen that for myself.

Yes! They group themselves and start fooling with people, even attacking people. There was a worldwide symposium about how to deal with the problem and they started killing crows. The crows started breeding faster because they understood they were under attack. Birds are so smart they can react to threats to their existence, using their natural instincts. If we did the same, using our instincts, we would understand that we are destroying Mother Nature (and with it, ourselves) and we could achieve a lot in terms of responding to this (self-inflicted) threat.

Image: Reto Fürst

When we first spoke, you said you approach your subjects as ‘not just taking pictures’. Can you explain?

I’m glad you asked that because I’ve been thinking a lot about it since our conversation. When I started in photography, I went out with the camera and took pictures to the best of my ability, technically and so on. Nowadays, I have an emotional image in mind and I go out and try to take that picture.

By an emotional picture, do you mean a feeling or an image?

It can be both. I’ll give you an example. It can be the behaviour of an animal that I think might happen or it could be an emotional drive. Recently I started taking pictures of ordinary things in our everyday world. I took pictures of crows. They’re everywhere, we don’t even notice. So I challenged myself to look at these birds more carefully, away from the mythology and the issues we just mentioned and to portray them in a friendly way. To make people look twice.

I once walked down a street and saw two snails mating. It would have made a great picture. I memorised every element and wanted to take that photograph. Two years later, I was able to take exactly such a picture, which fit the image I had kept in mind. It might sound strange, but this was ticking an item off my bucket list. I could give you a million examples of an image I see in my mind that I want to make happen.

I have a great deal of respect for crows, too, and also spiders, another kind of clichéd horror, which are actually intriguing when you watch them operate.

I couldn’t agree more. We live in a very old house and by its nature, we have a lot of spiders. I always leave them because they clean up other insects, but also because they’re very funny. We have a jumping spider. I have a macro lens so I can take pictures where small things look big. These spiders are funny and cute and like comic creatures. They are so delicate, like a little snowflake. The spider has the same right to live as me. And a spider web, with its geometrical construction, is so beautiful and fragile, also like a snowflake, and can be constructed overnight.

The term ‘snowflake’ has also been appropriated by some as a derogatory term for people concerned about big issues, such as the refugee crisis, gay rights and widespread prejudice. How do you react to that?

I believe in projection. People project their own shadows. If someone uses the term ‘snowflake’ and points fingers at people they see as weak, I think that person must have an inner weakness they’re afraid of—and they’re using this projection so as not to deal with their own shadows. I also believe that using such a beautiful thing as a snowflake to describe someone is not a bad thing. If someone called me a snowflake, I’d say thank you very much.

Image: Reto Fürst

As well as a passion for your subjects, I see a sense of humour in your pictures.

Putting emotion into pictures is one of the most difficult things. I can ask a human to pull a funny face and everybody laughs. I can’t tell a bird to do something funny I can laugh about. Humanity has the idea that animals just function. They get up, they eat, they sleep and repeat. That’s not true. I could give you so many examples of when an animal is doing whatever it’s doing because it’s having a blast. I love to capture these moments.

You could take a random image from the thousands in my archive and I could tell you where it was taken, so much I am connected to my work (but not when—I’m not good with dates). Sometimes, I sit behind the camera crying, other times laughing, and this means it is a form of entertainment. I have a blast looking at them having a blast. So to know other people look at a picture and it makes them smile, that makes me smile all over again.

You have stunning images from all over the world. Is there a place you would identify as a favourite?

Some painter, I think it was Van Gogh, said: “If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” This is how I see it. Everywhere I go, I find beautiful moments and encounters. However, if you ask me about special places, I’d say Yellowstone National Park. So much changed while we were there, for example my wife and I turned vegan after encountering some of these animals.

Another favourite is the island of Orkney in Scotland. Ever since I was a child, I had this idea I needed to go to Scotland. Orkney has plenty of water, but a tree is like a landmark. I’m a woods guy—trees and water are two things I need in my life. So I couldn’t move there permanently, but it is a magical place and I’d always return. But as I said, you could drop me off anywhere in the world and I would find inspiration.


You can see a greater selection of Reto’s work in our Gallery.

Reto’s dog


And don’t forget to sign up for The Woolf mailing list to receive alerts about latest issues, as well as information about events for writers in Switzerland.

Author: J.J. Marsh

Writer of The Beatrice Stubbs series, founder member of Triskele Books, columnist for Words with JAM magazine, co-curator of The Woolf magazine, Bookmuse reviewer, blogger and Tweeter. @JJMarsh1

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