86 years of love – a documentary photography project
As a new main partner of the largest exhibition for photography throughout Switzerland we were at photo18 and met the talented photographer from Biel, Rolf Neeser.
Rolf Neeser completed a documentary photography project about the Biel couple Walter and Silvia Frei. They have loved each other for 86 years. They promised their love to each other at the age of four. Today they are both 90 years old and still a couple.
Rolf Neeser in an interview on the creative process
«Beautiful stories are often right in front of our eyes»
ifolor: Dear Rolf, what a great story, really heart warming. How did you come up with the idea of accompanying an older couple and capturing their love in photos?
Rolf Neeser: I do a lot of news reports. A great deal of space is dedicated to negative topics here. Whether it’s an act of terror or starving people in Africa, they are usually sad topics that I draw attention to. The positive tends to be neglected. The beautiful stories are often right in front of our eyes. You just have to discover them and then open up this treasure trove. I have known Silvia and Walter for many years. The two of them inspired me to report on their love story. All three of us had not reckoned on it being so well received by the media.
ifolor: How long did you accompany the couple to be able to compile these impressive photos?
Rolf Neeser: I accompanied the two of them for a year – every now and then. I already had contact with Silvia and Walter beforehand. And we’re still in contact now since the photography project has finished, we’re friends. We see still see each other in Biel and have a coffee together now and again. They have such a great sense of humour… Recently during a chat with another older couple they’re friends with Walter said that he had never thought about divorce. But more likely murder.
It’s also funny how late the two of them still stay up. We recently went to dinner together and after we’d been sitting at the table for a few hours Walter said to Silvie, they had better go as otherwise Rolf would be asleep soon. I was already dead tired, far more tired than the two of them aged 90. (laughs) I am really moved by the loving way they treat each other.
«Loving the same things and situations»
ifolor: Were the two of them relaxed in front of the camera? What was your approach to be able to photograph them so authentically and capture the everyday moments?
Rolf Neeser: The Frei couple are very relaxed and loving towards each other, in front of the camera too. We already knew each other, so we didn’t have to break the ice. They live on the 4th floor in a building without a lift. They walk up four floors of stairs every day. I can remember one warm summer’s day really well: once I’d arrived upstairs with my camera equipment I was totally sweaty. And I’m quite a bit younger! (laughs) Walter and Silvie have to walk down these four sets of stairs to open the front door whenever they have visitors too. Every day they walk to Migros together for their shopping, sit on a little bench and read about what is happening in the world in the daily newspaper. They don’t have a television or radio. The two of them are of course eye catching and are noticed by people in Biel, for example when they’re doing their shopping. And since their wonderful love story has been published and is in the media they’re now also approached by passers-by who they don’t know. They both feel this is enriching as they get talking to new people. It’s really moving to see how happy it makes them that their private love story is so well received.
ifolor: Were you able to uncover the secret of everlasting love? What makes Walter and Silvia into an exceptional couple?
Rolf Neeser: If there’s one thing then it’s probably having basic shared interests. What they both have in common is their love of music. They have followed and indulged in this shared interest all their life. Loving the same things and situations is probably what keeps people together.
«It’s one of the most wonderful documentary photography projects for me»
ifolor: You’re well-known for your purist style, your pictures stand out due to the direct honesty they convey to the observer. How do you select the topics for your documentary photography?
Rolf Neeser: The theme either comes from being topical or they’re themes and stories that are close to my heart. Especially with such a beautiful story like that of Silvia and Walter, you often just have to look a bit closer. They’re an unusual couple that stand out due to their unusual nature, their special style of dress and the loving, gentle way that they treat each other, which makes their love story so moving. It is certainly one of the most wonderful documentary photography projects that I have been honoured to complete over the last few years, a real affair of the heart for me.
Thank you for this interview, dear Rolf. We wish you a lot of continued success and look forward to more exciting documentary photography.