“How I got the shot”

Behind the scenes with Beat Pfändler

Beat Pfändler getting his equipment set up to photograph the Japanese Empress for his book “Swiss Guest Book”.

Beat Pfändler getting his equipment set up to photograph the Japanese Empress for his book “Swiss Guest Book”.

Text: Mike Blanchard + Photos: PhotoAtelier

Arts-y | As any photographer knows, sometimes there are obstacles to overcome in the pursuit of the shot that you want. However, determination and vision can get you a long way in life. Veteran Swiss photographer Beat Pfändler pursued his goal of a portrait sitting with the Japanese empress for years. Through polite persistence and ingenuity he managed to get an unlooked-for scoop. Here is the story in his words. 

“I had the crazy plan that one day I thought I would like to inspire friends of my children who were in school and had no vision where to go in life. I recognize all of them. Students (going to school) with my children had no clue where to go. 

“I said, ‘Let me inspire them. Let me inspire all the kids of what to do in life.’ And I said, ‘Let me show them people who did something great, who changed the world.’ Now let me make a book. So I wrote down 50 names of the most impressive people who influenced Switzerland. First I thought of the whole world, but the book would become that big (laughing as he holds his hand over his head). So I reduced it to Switzerland. 

“I wrote down 50 names and I said, ‘Let me take a portrait of these people and write down their story and make a book.’ And that included also the Japanese empress. Because I tried to find a protagonist for Swiss literature like ‘Heidi,’ I thought, ‘Who should I take as a protagonist for Swiss literature?’ All of them are more or less dead, that are read now. So I thought, ‘Oh, I heard that the empress is reading ‘Heidi’ at the World Exhibition in Japan, her own translation of ‘Heidi,’ and I thought, ‘She will be the protagonist to represent “Heidi” today.’ 

“And then I got the crazy idea to take a portrait of the empress (laughing). I had a guess that the empress doesn’t ever come alone so I will include the emperor. But I knew the emperor would never be able to be in the book because it’s not allowed to take his picture. 

A view of the exhibit at the Fuji Photo Salon that accompanied the publication of “Swiss Guest Book”. Phändler says of the show, “The exhibition was part of the Frame-Program of the World Exhibition in Japan 2005-2006. The Swiss Embassy was the patron of the frame program as a complimentary exhibition to the exhibits in the Swiss Pavilion. I refused to have my images shown there because the size would have been too small and the series not numerous due to lack of space. Funny enough, I got sponsored by the government for my exhibition and they bought  Swiss Guest Book  later to bring as presents from Switzerland on international state visits. On a flight I coincidently met the president of Switzerland on board and he told me, that he personally brought my  Swiss Guest Book  at least 10 times as a present to foreign countries as a state gift.”

A view of the exhibit at the Fuji Photo Salon that accompanied the publication of “Swiss Guest Book”. Phändler says of the show, “The exhibition was part of the Frame-Program of the World Exhibition in Japan 2005-2006. The Swiss Embassy was the patron of the frame program as a complimentary exhibition to the exhibits in the Swiss Pavilion. I refused to have my images shown there because the size would have been too small and the series not numerous due to lack of space. Funny enough, I got sponsored by the government for my exhibition and they bought Swiss Guest Book later to bring as presents from Switzerland on international state visits. On a flight I coincidently met the president of Switzerland on board and he told me, that he personally brought my Swiss Guest Book at least 10 times as a present to foreign countries as a state gift.”

“I worked about five years, along with everything else I did, to get that permission, which is very difficult to get. You can imagine. I would never be allowed to enter the emperor’s palace as a photographer, never. 

“But I would be allowed to come with the president of Switzerland. Because politically they are on the same level. And as a coincidence the (Swiss) ambassador to Japan went to school with the president of Switzerland. So I said, ‘Wow, what a coincidence.’ He (the ambassador) said, ‘We need more of Switzerland in Japan so let’s invite the president of Switzerland and you will go with him as a photographer.’

“But then we noticed it’s not allowed to take pictures of the emperor. Not even allowed to bring a tripod into the palace. Not any consent to plug in electricity, nothing. And it’s dark there like the stomach of a cow (laughing). Just candlelight like 300 years ago (more laughter). Even before I was finally there and I got a phone call, there is no consent. You’re not allowed to take a tripod, nothing. I saw my picture fly away (chuckling).

“I thought, ‘Well, you just got to try.’ I brought the stuff with me. I arrived in a car from the emperor; it had no license plates but just a chrysanthemum as a license plate. I arrived in front of the house and there was this guy from the household standing there in front. Like a rock. I’m bringing my stuff. He looked at me and he said, ‘What is this?’ I said, ‘I brought a present for you.’ And then I took out a stone. A completely round, marble-like stone. I said, ‘I found this in Antarctica and when I saw it I thought to bring it to you. This is my present for you.’

One of Phändler’s “impossible” portraits of Emperor Akihito. Amazingly he managed to run a couple rolls of film through his Hasselblad despite being told he could take no photos of the Emperor.

One of Phändler’s “impossible” portraits of Emperor Akihito. Amazingly he managed to run a couple rolls of film through his Hasselblad despite being told he could take no photos of the Emperor.

“He was looking at this stone. If it would have been gold he would not be allowed to take it. But a stone he is allowed to take. He got something personal for him and he felt it’s true what I said. He took the stone and was changed. He helped me to bring in the tripods. 

I set up the tripods with a flash triggered by a 100-volt battery. It had some 80 cells: 1.5 volt cells. I brought it in and I could trigger a flash and I could carry it with me and I set it up. 

“The photographer of the emperor came to me and said, ‘I must make a documentary of this, but did you know I am not allowed to take a portrait of the emperor? Did you know that? No one is allowed to take a portrait of the emperor. It’s not allowed and it’s not legal.’

“The emperor came in later on. A big door opened, out came security and he came in together with the president of Switzerland. He sat there and he looked at me and said, ‘Oh! Something’s going on here,’ and he enjoyed it. He has such a narrow frame of behavior. Then he looked at me and he thought, ‘Oh, a portrait of me. How fun.’

“I took about one and a half rolls of the emperor. Of the empress, as soon as I took the picture with a strobe I realized she is irritated. I asked myself, ‘Should I continue? Should I not continue? Do I have the picture?’ I said, ‘I have it.’ So I went back to the emperor and took more of him.  

“This so far is the only portrait of the emperor that is known. There are pictures of the emperor at a function, for the people. But these are not portraits. 

“I had a Hasselblad with a 350 and TMX film. 100 exposed at 64. This was 2004. I worked until 2007 on this book and I released it. It became an art bestseller in Switzerland. It was sold out much too soon. The book is called ‘Swiss Guest Book.’

Rust: Who was the person you most enjoyed meeting or were most excited about during the project besides the Empress?
Phändler: I must be careful not to mix up THE MOST DIFFICULT portrait to realize with THE MOST EXCITED portrait I could do for the project. (One tends to hang on to the most difficult ones - as you can imagine. But I think, a person I was sustainably impressed to have met and excited to have seen him in my camera screen was the Dalai Lama. Another impressive person was Kofi Annan, on top the UN in New York. But he is not in the book, he was taken only for the exhibitions and speeches to junior high school kids.

Then I will never forget Anne Sophie Mutter, the genius violin player. She took me completely into her sphere and guided the photo session from A to Z - not me. What an unforgettable person!


Editor’s note: Pfändler really did find the stone in Antarctica. “Swiss Guest Book” is available online in used versions. It is well worth a look.