Fieldwork: Aerial Photographs Highlight Global Food Issues

After taking aerial shots in more than 100 countries over the last 50 years, photographer Georg Gerster's work in being celebrated with a new exhibition. The selection of works takes a look at how the global food supply and its problems appear from above.

Swiss photographer Georg Gerster has spent many of his 84 years leaning out of airplanes in search of the perfect bird's-eye view. His quest for interesting aerial photos has led him around the world -- and into a few pickles -- in addition to earning him international acclaim.

His work has appeared in dozens of illustrated books and renowned magazines, such as National Geographic, as well as in a popular Swissair ad campaign. To celebrate 50 years of Gerster's images, an exhibition opened this month in his hometown of Winterthur, near Zurich. "The Staff of Life" features 50 selected works that focus on world food sources. Gerster, who has also photographed archaeological subjects, believes that global food production is one of the key issues of our era and has focused heavily on it in his work.

The shots, which show the source world food staples in grain fields, rice plantations and vineyards, highlight his attention to texture and abstract composition. They are skills he began honing in Sudan in 1963, when he had the first of his many aerial adventures.

After hiring a plane to carry him over some ancient pyramids, he mentioned to the pilot that friends of his working on a nearby archaeological site had offered a prize to anyone who could manage to land a plane at the location. The prize, a bottle of whiskey, proved to be motivation enough for the pilot to take on the challenge.

Booze and Bathroom Breaks

"My pilot suddenly had a great interest in bringing me to this camp," Gerster told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We'd hardly landed when he jumped out, went to the refrigerator, and happily took to drinking the whiskey. He was drunk after about an half and hour."

"Then I did what I would never do again today," he says. "I got into the plane with the drunk pilot, and we took a reeling flight back north." Despite the danger, the trip was worth it, he adds, because he discovered the aesthetic effect of aerial photos, and has since logged more than 3,500 hours in flight.

On another occasion, while shooting the rain forests of Brazil, Gerster and his companions were almost stranded when one of the passengers needed to take an emergency bathroom break. The only place to land was a river with a small sand bar, where the passengers hopped off to take care of bodily business, only to turn around and see the plane floating away downriver.

"We couldn't swim after it because of the piranhas in the river," he says. "It was a very uncomfortable situation."

Adding to their distress, no one knew where they were because they were flying illegally and had therefore flown beneath the radar to remain undetected. Luckily, the pilot had a solution. Since he'd taken a fishing rod off the plane with him, he snagged the plane and slowly pulled it back. "I have never prayed so hard for a nylon thread to hold," Gerster says.

The exhibition, which includes detailed commentaries from Gerster on the photos, runs until May 26 at the Fotostiftung Schweiz.

-- with reporting by Solveig Grothe

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