Carnivals & Festivals – Böögg and Fritschi

Rudolf Abraham tells us why he loves photographing carnivals and traditional festivals, focusing on two he has covered in Switzerland over the past year.

From the burning (snow)man to the Big Bang – photographing carnivals and traditional festivals

It’s the third Monday of April, and for the unfortunate Böögg, that means it’s time to die. 

Sechseläuten, Zürich, Switzerland

Several thousand people are packed onto Zürich’s Sechseläutenplatz, the city’s largest square, around a broad ring of sand, at the centre of which stands an enormous bonfire – and on top of it all there’s Böögg, apparently unalarmed at the whole prospect, with a pipe in his mouth. Then at six o’clock sharp (we’re in Switzerland, so it really is six o’clock sharp), the giant pyre with Böögg on top is set alight with long torches, and after a carefully observed period of time –his head explodes in a blast of firecrackers. Alas poor Böögg.

Zürich’s Sechseläuten

Böögg is a snowman, of course – because why wouldn’t you build a large model not-snow snowman, stuff his head full of explosives, and burn him on a giant bonfire, while guild members on horseback go charging around in circles. This is Sechseläuten, the city’s traditional spring festival, a time of parades, guild livery, the burning of Böögg, an almost tangible feeling of civic pride – and sausages. Welcome to the other side of Zürich.

Cooking in the streets at Sechseläuten, Zürich

Oh yes, the sausages – I thought you might be wondering. Following Böögg’s rather spectacular demise, the barriers around the ring of sand come down, and the city’s population rushes in armed with sticks and shovels, to grab some still-burning bits of pyre, find a choice spot nearby, and sit down to grill some stick-skewered sausages. It’s like some big impromptu picnic in the park, but set among damp sand and ashes. The heat, even long after the flames have died down, is within the realms of face melting – the hottest place I’ve been since dancing around a gigantic bonfire on a square in Mohács, Hungary, in the company of some devil mask-wearing characters dressed in sheepskins. But that’s another story.

I absolutely love photographing carnivals and traditional festivals. They are a moment when, more than at any other time, a city well and truly lets its hair down – and generally goes a bit bonkers. The atmosphere of a full-blown carnival is almost indescribable – and more than a little addictive, I’ve found. Loud, elated, insanely colourful, and in some cases highly irreverent – an opportunity for scathing satire from which no one, whether politicians, religions, corporations or celebrities, is immune (the carnival in Aalst, Belgium, excels on this front) – they’re also a wonderfully vibrant slice of traditional culture which is often completely at odds with how a place is usually perceived. Few people would associate the Empaillés of Evolène – lumbering, masked figures wearing jute sacks stuffed with around 30kg of straw – with the refined ski resorts of Valais, but there it is. And whether they’re behind a mask or not, people are usually more than happy to find themselves in front of a lens. In photographic terms, they’re sheer gold dust. 

A flavour of Lucerne’s carnival celebrations

Before the pandemic I made a point of photographing two such traditional carnivals or festivals a year, many of them on Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. One of the last was the carnival in Basel – where at exactly 4am the city kills the lights and the main square is plunged into blackness, just before huge, elaborately-painted lanterns are lit up, and several thousand pipe players strike up a tune. It’s a genuinely goose bumps inducing moment. So photographing Sechseläuten last year had a certain, pleasing Swiss symmetry – and in February this year, I went to Lucerne to photograph the carnival there.

Left: The Zvončari (‘bell ringers’) at the Rijeka Carnival, Croatia. Right: Busó Carnival, Mohács, Hungary

Preparation – a photographer’s perspective

First in my list of preparations when photographing carnivals and festivals, is permits. While there are some carnivals where you can wander around fairly freely, many others have barriers and no-go areas – charging horses, exploding snowmen, that kind of thing – which require accreditation. Without this, it’s hard or impossible to put yourself in the thick of things and with carnivals, I find that’s exactly where you want to be. Having a photo pass generally gets you into designated media areas – a balcony is always good, giving a completely different and usually unrestricted angle of view. However I prefer to spend only some time in these areas, and wander around freely in the crowds and the parades for most of the time. It’s perhaps stating the obvious, but despite the ability to move around in a parade as a photographer, you still need to get out of the way fairly quickly – people are often wearing masks which largely obscure their angle of view, so they can only see what’s directly in front of them (aside from the fact that getting in the way would just be rude). 

Top left: Lanterns at Morgestraich. Bottom left: Procession. Right: Carnival goer – all at Basel Carnival, Switzerland

For all their delirious chaos, carnivals tend to follow a set structure and protocol, often based on traditions and characters stretching back several hundred years, which are adhered to meticulously. This is rather handy as a photographer, making it easier to put yourself in the right place at the right time to capture a moment when it happens. In the case of Sechseläuten, it meant crouching down while focusing on Böögg’s head for the best part of an hour – because in that year it took 57 minutes, the longest time ever by quite some margin, for him to explode – 15 to 20 minutes is more the norm. Apparently this was a Very Bad Thing (my right shoulder certainly thought so afterward) – the length of time is said to foreshadow whether it will be a good or a bad summer, longer being equated with less sun and more rain. In the face of global warming however, we might have to throw Böögg’s predictions out the window.

The demise of Böögg at Zurich’s Sechseläuten

In terms of camera gear, two bodies is pretty much essential in my opinion – trying to change lenses in the dark amid flying confetti and sloshing beer, is a fairly sure way to miss the shot as well as get some gunk inside your camera. Subjects are usually close – often, really close – so something fairly wide is the order of the day, plus a longer lens for picking out figures in a procession. In the past, I always used a 14-24mm f2.8 on one body and a 70-200mm f2.8 on the other, with a fast 50mm f1.4 for when it was really dark. These days that’s changed to a 20mm f1.8 or a 35mm f1.8 on one body, and a 50mm f1.8 or 100-400mm f4 zoom on the other. I carry gear in ThinkTank Photo pouches on a belt, along with a low-key shoulder bag, which I’m always finding bits of confetti in long after carnival season. Dense crowds make a backpack as inconvenient to others as it would be to me. 

Lucerne and Guggenmusik

In Lucerne we were up at 4am on Schmutziger Donnerstag (Dirty Thursday), in order to be down on Kappelplatz before 5am, in time for the Big Bang – the moment when the main carnival characters in Lucerne, Fritschi and his family, arrive on the lakeside by boat, then make their way to Kappelplatz where their appearance is marked by a deluge of confetti (made from shredded phone books) raining down from the predawn sky. Thus ushering in the so-called Fifth Season, which runs until Ash Wednesday and sees the city transformed into one big, deliriously non-stop celebration.

Lucerne carnival – Procession & Guggenmusik

No two carnivals are the same. Ask someone from either Basel or Lucerne about the differences between their carnivals, and be prepared for a long and detailed reply. All of them have particular characters and characteristics with which they’re associated – be it the so-called bell-ringers (Zvončari) of the area around Rijeka in Croatia, or the gigantic, jaw-droppingly elaborate floats of Viareggio in Italy. In Lucerne, it’s Guggenmusik – think brass and percussion marching bands. Lots of them, and loud. Drum kits get wheeled around on a mobile rack attached to each player. Marching around the town wearing elaborate costumes and masks, stopping and playing a few pieces (masks removed), each group might perform over 15 times in a day, repeated over several days.

The Big Bang was one of those prime look-behind-you moments. Trying to focus on mobile-wielding hands silhouetted against the deluge of shredded paper, I missed the obvious shot behind me, where Fritschi and his fellow cohorts stood on a podium, arms raised amid a maelstrom of confetti.

Viareggio Carnival, Tuscany, Italy

From Kappelplatz we made our way to the Town Hall, for breakfast among an ever-changing succession of carnival groups, knocking back coffee and the occasional schnapps, and at various points dancing a carnival conga. Then I went back outside, where it was just getting light, and with a little patience found a position on the steps leading down to the riverside. I’d already seen videos of Guggenmusigen (the marching bands playing Guggenmusik) playing here in previous years, and I knew it was a spot I wanted to photograph. Wedged comfortably between rows of trumpets and trombones, a group of nuns drinking wickedly bright green punch, and an enormous raccoon – we’re talking costumes here, obviously – I had a perfect, front-row position to photograph Guggenmusigen as they rocked out beside me. Guggenmusik might not be to everyone’s taste, but I think it’s wonderful – so once I’d found my spot, I was happy to stay put for quite a while.

Left and top right: Guggenmusik at Lucerne Carnival, Switzerland. Bottom right: Carnival leaders.

Lucerne’s carnival origins, like those of all Shrovetide carnivals, go back to the middle ages and beyond. On one hand, carnival marks the days leading up to Lent in the Christian calendar, with its traditional associations of fasting and austerity – a final extravagance before eschewing certain luxuries. The word carnival derives from Latin carn- and levare, literally meaning ‘to give up (eating) meat’. On the other, it derives from the symbolic, pagan banishment of winter, and the ushering in of a fertile spring – in a similar vein to the Saturnalia rites of ancient Rome, held in winter to honour the god of farming and harvest. These days it’s fair to say they’re also an excuse for a damn good party. As for the burning of Böogg in Zürich, it’s a combination of two traditions. Back in the 16th century, the city guilds decided that during the summer everyone should knock off work an hour earlier – and the start of these reduced hours was marked by the ringing of the Grossmünster church bells at 6pm on the first Monday after the vernal or spring equinox. Meanwhile in the city’s old Kratz quarter, effigies representing winter – the bogeyman, or Böögg – were dragged about in the streets then set alight. The two traditions were merged in the 19th century.

One thing that sets Lucerne apart from many carnivals is the degree to which those watching the carnival dress up – it’s not just those in the procession, it’s pretty much the whole town decked out in costumes. This sometimes makes for a surreal experience. Late in the evening at a bar in the old town, ‘waiters’ in huge, leering masks served fake food at people’s tables, and waltzed them off in a swaggering dance, while three men in retro suits and oversized glasses eyed the scene from their table like some tripped out version of Goodfellas.

I don’t think I could really name a favourite carnival, because all of the ones I’ve been lucky enough to see and photograph have been amazing in their own way. Likewise I don’t really have a favourite carnival photo – except to say that the ones which really convey the atmosphere and the moment as I remember it, work for me. In Lucerne, that might be a shot of the trombone and trumpet players on the steps by the Town Hall; in Zürich, it might be the moment when Böögg the snowman’s head finally explodes in a burst of flame and flying bits of pipe. Image above: The burning of Böögg at Sechseläuten.

I once made a general rule that I would try not to photograph the same carnival twice – simply because there are so many of them, and given that the main events are all on the same or similar dates, it’s only possible to cover one or two a year. But rules were meant to be broken – so I fully expect I’ll see myself back in Lucerne next year for a different part of the Fifth Season.

Next adventure: Where will Rudolf take us next?

Previous adventure: Two Feet, One Lens – hiking the Juliana Trail

All images © Rudolf Abraham


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By Chris Coe

Chris is a professional photographer, and the founder of Travel Photographer of the Year. He has been working as a professional photographer since 1992, shooting both editorial and advertising photography, and has published over 50 books. He lectures on and teaches photography, mentors and is a competition judge.